The Southern Baptist Convention is the most important voter bloc in the Republican Party and support from its leaders is critical.
A new poll shows John McCain seriously lagging among white evangelical Protestants. It is perhaps the most volatile voter bloc in the Republican Party. George Herbert Walker Bush carried 81 percent of the vote in 1988 but barely split the vote with Clinton in his loss of 1992.
Evangelicals were troubled by appointments and many arcane issues, including government sponsored art such as the famous Piss Christ, which had a picture of Jesus in bottle of urine. In 2000, 4 million evangelicals sat at home as George W. Bush barely won the election in the Supreme Court. This in spite of his famous suspect claim that his favorite “political philosopher” was “Christ, because he changed my heart.”
Bush openly courted the evangelicals throughout his first term and won re-election with 78 percent of white evangelicals in 2004. By comparison, John McCain in a recent poll is supported by only 51 percent of these very same white, evangelical Christians.
It could spell disaster in November.
One of the most urgent, most important things John McCain can do right now is secure the support of the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention. This is the largest Protestant denomination in America. Only Catholics outnumber Southern Baptists. They are 16.3 million members of the SBC and 94 percent of them live in 13 Southern states that represent the base for any winning Republican electoral map.
If the McCain camp cannot secure this base, and secure it quickly, then they have no chance to take Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Missouri or other key states needed to win. If only a few of these Southern Baptists stay home on election day, blacks and other Democrat voters in the South could steal away some of these states for Barack Obama and it will be all over.
In 1985, working in the campaign of George Herbert Walker Bush, I directed our focus early toward Southern Baptists. We met and talked with 500 leading pastors and educators. By 1987, when George W. Bush joined the campaign and became my boss, his father, Vice President Bush, was a personal friend with much of the Southern Baptist leadership.
We had a massive, ongoing personal correspondence running between Bush and all 500 targeted leaders. We juggled these relationships all the way into the White House. And when the election year came, we quietly maintained these friendships below the radar screen out of the prying eyes of a hostile, anti-evangelical media, without any offense to the leaders who knew what we were doing.
In the White House, I brought in Les Csorba, the son in law to Judge Paul Pressler, one of the strategists who helped shape the modern, more conservative, structure of the SBC. I was surprised to learn that presidents of the SBC were not regularly received at the White House, while we feted Catholic Cardinals almost monthly.
We had actually stepped up the White House friendships with the Cardinals as part of a plan I devised to tilt away from the more liberal and contentious Council of Bishops toward the more conservative and Vatican connected Cardinals but at the same time we established a permanent, annual meeting with the leadership of the SBC and inserted their leaders in regular meetings with conservatives.
These meetings were not easily arranged and took much White House infighting to establish but once on the schedule and once the president saw and experienced the benefit, they became a permanent feature of every White House, Republican of Democrat, since that time.
The Evangelical Movement is not monolithic. There are many more stops for Sen. McCain to make on the way to the White House, and that’s just among evangelicals, let alone other groups. The fact that McCain, this late in the game, has not secured this base is ominous.
In 2000, in his frustrating South Carolina primary campaign with rival George W. Bush, a Christian Coalition worker, not a Southern Baptist, spread ugly stories about the senator’s family. Understandably, McCain responded angrily, but in the process he labeled all evangelicals as “agents of intolerance.”
He better hope that this is not the case. With evangelical leader of influence, James Dobson, promising to sit this election out, McCain needs the Southern Baptist leaders in his camp now. And he needs their counsel before it all slips away.
Doug Wead is a presidential historian and New York Times best-selling author. He has been an adviser to two presidents. See www.dougwead.wordpress.com.
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