Dispatch October 2008

Day of Reckoning

Has Barack Obama succeeded in his push to win religious voters?
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In May, GOP strategist Dick Morris did his best to gauge the electoral fallout from the then-boiling controversy surrounding Senator Barack Obama and his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Appearing on The O’Reilly Factor, Morris predicted that “this guy, who used to have to convince people he wasn't a Muslim, now is electable only if he can convince people he never goes to church.” But in the months since, Obama has brushed off this kind of snap analysis and put together a networked, community-based religious outreach plan designed to put the Democratic party on the offense with religious swing voters. Heading into the last days of the race, it looks like this was the right call.

Poll junkies find it natural to focus on the faithful—those “values voters” who are said to have delivered a second term to George W. Bush. For a while this summer, Obama polled like a typical Democrat among this group—which is to say, he polled quite poorly compared to John McCain, who until late summer enjoyed an 18-point advantage among voters who attended church weekly or more. But as the race moves to a close, Obama is doing better than either John Kerry or Al Gore among religious voters: in mid-October the Pew Center released a poll suggesting that white mainline Protestants prefer Obama to McCain by 48-43, and that white Catholics prefer Obama 49-41. (With the same voters, Bush beat Kerry by 10 points and 13 points, respectively.) And, as Morris and others won’t let you forget, Obama is working uphill—against the 12 percent of the country that still believes he is a Muslim.

So what accounts for Obama’s impressive numbers among the collection plate crowd? It doesn’t hurt that the economy is tanking, and that McCain is less than beloved among evangelicals. But showing up is half the battle. The Illinois senator said as much in a debate in South Carolina last January, noting that “when you’re not going to church, you’re not talking to church folk…. It is important for us not to concede that ground.” In 2005, Obama was reportedly the only Democratic senator with a full-time staffer working on faith policy. But under Obama's direction, the party has increasingly used religion to take a progressive message to the heart of the GOP coalition—an onslaught that may prove decisive in this and future elections.

The first place to look is Denver. At the convention, DNC chairman Howard Dean and his deputy, ordained minister Leah Daughtry, kicked off festivities with the Democrats’ first annual Faith in Action gathering, which was part of a highly choreographed rollout of Obama’s own “Common Ground for Common Good” faith initiative. It was there that nuns and rabbis, Buddhists, Muslims, and countless others made the case for civic unity in a country of diverse faiths. Sean Casey, a prominent evangelical academic who now works for the Obama campaign, told me the meeting is “symbolic of what the Democratic Party stands for. Tens of thousands of faithful people have voted for Democrats,” he added. “We’re not driving wedges, we’re building coalitions.”

Colorado, which is shaping up to be a crucial state on November 4, was an impudent place to stage such an offensive: the town of Colorado Springs is known in some circles as the “Evangelical Vatican;” tearful Denver teens fall out en masse at “Tuesday Night Live” faith revivals; and a “Personhood Amendment” defining life as beginning at fertilization was successfully placed on the ballot for November. Nevertheless, Obama swept through Fort Collins, the site of a large Christian college, on his return from Hawaii last weekend—his fifth trip since May.

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Dayo Olopade is a reporter for The Daily Beast in Washington, and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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