McCain's Winning Streak With Evangelicals

When word leaked the Friday morning before the Republican National Convention that Sarah Palin was John McCain's choice for vice president, a group of 40 religious leaders meeting in Washington all gave a standing ovation. They were convinced that McCain would settle on one of his buddies, Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman, men whose pro-choice views render them unworthy contenders from the Christian-right perspective. They didn't know much about Palin, but the fact she wasn't Ridge or Lieberman was enough to make them cheer.

They were so surprised by McCain's bold nod in their direction that their whole view of him changed. They were willing to re-evaluate him in the light of this astonishing appointment (though some in the room warned against getting carried away). "He'll disappoint you," they said, mindful of McCain's inconsistency when it comes to pledging fealty to the religious right.

The account of this gathering comes from Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior adviser to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. He has been much in demand since the Palin pick, explaining to inquiring journalists the attributes of evangelicals and Pentecostals and where they differ from fundamentalists. He has a ready quip that he attributes to a Duke University professor: Evangelicals really, really like Billy Graham.

Fundamentalists think Billy Graham is a liberal. When news of Bristol Palin's pregnancy broke during the GOP convention, Cromartie fielded calls from journalists wondering about the impact on the McCain campaign and on Palin's status as an icon of traditional values. Cromartie assured them that McCain had ascended yet another rung in the eyes of conservative, religiously oriented voters because he didn't make the 17-year-old's pregnancy disqualifying. He noted that many of the mega-churches associated with the evangelical movement have crisis-pregnancy centers.

McCain is on a streak with evangelicals, which explains much of his sudden rise in the polls. "He's had a trifecta," says Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. First was the Saddleback forum and McCain's interview with mega-church pastor Rick Warren, where McCain put to rest doubts that he could talk about his faith. Second was the Republican platform, where language aimed at finding common-ground solutions to reduce the number of abortions was struck from the final draft. The omission received scant notice from the media but hugely boosted McCain's stock among pro-life activists. The offending language: "We invite all persons of good will, whether across the political aisle or within our party, to work together to reduce the incidence of abortion."

Evangelicals are used to being looked upon condescendingly by the media, Lugo explained. Palin's nomination catapults them into the mainstream, a heartbeat away from the presidency. The fact that McCain would put his trust in a strong evangelical woman—simply the act of doing that—energized the party's foot soldiers, got the attention of independents and doubled the enthusiasm for McCain, from 24 percent to 48 percent, still short of Barack Obama, but a dramatic narrowing of the gap. More worrisome for Democrats is the 20-point shift reported by The Washington Post of white women voters away from Obama and toward McCain-Palin, erasing Obama's lead in the national polls and tightening the race in battleground states where Palin frenzy has taken hold, swelling crowds to rival Obama in size and intensity. Even the advantage Democrats enjoyed over Republicans in congressional elections has been reduced to a nonsignificant 48 percent to 45 percent. "McCain has pulled the Republican Party up with him, at least for now," says Scott Keeter, Pew's director of survey research. He says the reason for the qualifying phrase, at least for now, is that there is reason to believe these numbers, "if not ephemeral, are subject to change."

Palin mobilizes the GOP's social conservative base in a visceral way because her pro-life record is not just a position; she's living it out with her newborn and her pregnant daughter. The big question is how she will wear with independent voters, which is where the race will be won. Can she throw red meat to supporters and avoid turning off independent voters who might not share her views? Some of the bounce McCain is enjoying is from people in the middle who are intrigued by Palin, but once they hear from the other side, they may move back. The net effect of the conventions is to pull together the bases of each party, says Keeter. "Then we'll have the big argument."

At the press briefing Tuesday where Keeter led the discussion with a PowerPoint presentation, a reporter asked if McCain's choice of Palin could backfire if it is framed as McCain selling out to the right. The answer is yes, but Democrats looking for equivalency between the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's incendiary remarks and video clips of Palin's exhorting prayer for an Alaskan gas pipeline should understand that the voters who will decide this election do not see something alien. They see in her themselves, or their next-door neighbor, a quality that could defy traditional polling.