Many liberal Obama fans surely winced yesterday when their candidate called for a new, improved partnership between the federal government and faith-based organizations. Indeed, many secular Democrats are probably uncomfortable whenever their candidate reiterates his belief that that religion deserves a place in the public square.
But aside from the fact that Obama is sincere - he spoke frequently about faith in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope - he knows he has the opportunity to rework the traditional electoral math. In 2004, according to the exit polls, only 39 percent of devout voters (those who attend religious services at least weekly) supported John Kerry. In 2000, the same paltry percentage supported Al Gore. It hardly needs to be pointed out that Kerry and Gore lost close elections. Devout voters comprise roughly 40 percent of the electorate. Therefore, Obama's victory odds improve, perhaps greatly, if he can narrow the God gap by raising the Democratic share.
More specifically, consider the Christian evangelical voters. They comprise roughly 25 percent of the traditional electorate (although Obama's presence might alter the shape of the electorate). They also put George W. Bush in the White House. In 2000, they literally rescued his candidacy in the South Carolina primary, and backed him in November with 68 percent of their votes. Four years later, they flocked to the polls in larger numbers, and awarded Bush a record-high share of their votes, 78 percent. That trend was crucial where it counted most, in Ohio, the state that ultimately sealed Bush's re-election win.
Now consider what's happening in 2008. Christian evangelicals are underwhelmed by John McCain, for reasons frequently noted in this space. A national poll in June reported that McCain is barely pulling 60 percent of those folks - not simply because McCain, who rarely talks in public about religion, induces yawns, but also because Obama's social justice themes, coupled with his faith talk, are reportedly resonanting with some of the younger evangelicals.
Moreover, the pool of traditional religious-right voters might be smaller this year; as Tony Perkins, one of the movement leaders, reportedly remarked the other day, "there's no intensity at all" within his base. Maybe that explains why McCain got in a plane the other day and flew off to see Billy Graham and his son Franklin. Normally, a Republican candidate probably wouldn't need to do that, but, in case you haven't noticed, this is not a normal year. McCain failed to get their endorsement.
Hence, the political opportunity for Obama: If he can cut into the normal GOP evangelical advantage - by pulling, say, 35 to 40 percent of the vote, coupled with a smaller overall turnout - he can seriously imperil McCain. Which clearly explains why Obama has already been meeting privately with dozens of religious leaders; why his aides are mapping plans for hundreds of "American Values House Parties"; why they're hoping to stage dozens of Christian rock concerts; why they're planning to air ads on Christian radio.
Obama knows he can't win a majority of these voters; his support of abortion rights is a deal-breaker for many. Rather, Obama wants to dampen hostilities by demonstrating that he's not scary. And he could get some help from author Stephen Mansfield, whose last book was an admiring look at Bush's religiosity. Mansfield's new book is an admiring look at the Democratic candidate: "Obama's faith infuses his public policy, so that his faith is not just limited to the personal realm of his life, it also informs his leadership...For Obama, faith is not simply political garb, something a focus group told him he ought to try."
Four years ago, John Kerry sometimes gave the impression that his faith talk was solely prompted by focus group findings. I recall how he suddenly morphed, during the third autumn debate, into a New Testament preacher (from the Book of James: "What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds?"), but few voters bought it, because it seemed like mere political garb. Obama, by contrast, has been talking up faith since he first surfaced as a national speaker, declaring during his '04 Democratic convention speech that "we worship an awesome God in the blue states."
There's one other facet to Obama's faith talk. Call it the Rebound Effect. Even if he doesn't score major gains among evangelicals, there's always the chance that his religiosity will register with a far larger constituency, one that is heavily concentrated in the Rustbelt swing states: America's 64 million Catholics...or, more specifically, the observant traditional Catholics, who have backed every GOP candidate since 1992.
Bush employed the Rebound Effect in savvy fashion eight years ago; he stumped a lot for black votes, and talked up his "compassionate conservatism," not because he expected to score major gains among blacks, but because a show of inclusive tolerance might stand him in good stead with swing-voting moderate suburbanites. (And it worked. Bush won the 'burbs, narrowly.) Similarly, Obama's faith talk could potentially resonate with many of the traditional working-class Catholics who dismissed him during the primary season as an "elitist." As Steven Waldman and David Kuo, two experts on religion and politics, quipped yesterday, the Obama campaign's rebound message is this: "He can't bowl, but he sure can pray."
Will his blend of sincerity and strategy - his decision to utilize faith as a character issue, in the hopes of increasing the voter's comfort level - pay off for Obama in middle America? This is shaping up as one the key questions of the '08 election.