Palin may bring more Georgia evangelicals to McCain camp
September 6, 2008
Source: AJCAlaska Gov. Sarah Palin, with her conservative Christian credentials, appears to have turned grudging support from Georgia evangelicals into an excited buzz that may translate into votes for John McCain.
“I think she clearly articulates a conservative view that evangelicals appreciate and hold dear to their hearts,” said the Rev. Bob Jolly, a Southern Baptist from Cumming. “People are getting to know who she is, and they like what they hear.”
That’s a big change from the Georgia primary in February, when Gov. Mike Huckabee, an evangelical, eclipsed McCain.
In 2000, McCain created a gulf between himself and evangelicals when he referred to two outspoken conservative Christians with large TV audiences, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, as agents of intolerance.
McCain made up with Falwell before the minster’s death in 2007, but still was not attracting the amount of support George W. Bush received.
Palin could change that. She grew up in a Pentecostal Assemblies of God church, a theologically and socially conservative denomination. She switched to a nondenominational evangelical church whose statements of faith include a belief that the Bible is God’s inerrant guide for faith and living. She is against abortion and has said she thinks creationism ought to be taught alongside evolution in schools.
But the initial blush of enthusiasm for her may pale, some believe. Evangelicals, who have overwhelmingly supported Republicans in the past, have diversified their concerns.
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has made clear he believes Georgia is in play. Most polls show McCain with at least a 10-point lead, but a few indicate the race is closer. Obama has already spent nearly $2 million on advertising in the state and has more than 75 paid employees and dozens of offices here.
McCain has neither spent money on advertising, staff nor office space here.
Palin could help inoculate Georgia against Obama’s efforts to woo evangelicals.
“I’ve been surprised at the number of [acquaintances] I’ve heard say ‘I was on the fence … but this move by McCain is nudging me in their direction,’” said Bob Reccord, a Southern Baptist business and personal consultant from Atlanta.
Thirty-eight percent of Georgia voters in 2004 identified themselves as evangelical, according to an exit poll analysis by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. That would be about 1.25 million of Georgia’s 3.29 million voters. More than 1 million of them voted for Bush.
Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition director and a Georgia resident, believes faith-values voters were already swinging McCain’s way this year.
“We’ve got a long way to go in this campaign, but with the Palin selection … John McCain has a great opportunity to get a higher percentage of evangelical votes than George W. Bush did four years ago,” he said.
Others say the voting bloc is not what it was four years ago, because of unpopular Bush administration moves, such as the Iraq war and the response to Hurricane Katrina. Also there has been a significant shift in attitudes among evangelicals, particularly among younger voters.
“If this was 2004, the story would be Sarah Palin energizes the evangelical base and this could tip the election to McCain,” said Jim Wallace, the progressive evangelical leader from Washington who attended both party conventions.
“It won’t be the 2004 story, because evangelicalism has experienced a sea change.”
Evangelical issues have expanded beyond abortion and gay marriage to causes such as global warming, sex trafficking, America’s crumbling inner cities and world poverty.
Jonathan Merritt, a young Baptist from metro Atlanta who has attracted a following by writing on issues such as the environment, said he has heard from religious friends leaning toward Obama that Palin’s selection has made no difference. Others have told him Palin has made the ticket more attractive.
“The jury is still out with people. They are just trying to figure her out,” he said.
Merritt thinks Palin will give the Republicans a boost.
A national poll by the Pew Forum in June showed 61 percent of evangelicals supported McCain. By comparison, Bush carried 66 percent of evangelical voters in 2000, when he barely edged Al Gore.
McCain’s fortunes began improving in August. The Rev. Rick Warren, a popular preacher and bestselling author, hosted one-on-one nationally televised talks with Obama and McCain at his Saddleback church in California.
Sam Teasley of Atlanta, a delegate to last week’s Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., said his ambivalence began fading after the Warren interviews.
In a telling moment, Warren asked McCain when he thought life began.
At conception, McCain answered, to immediate applause.
“[McCain’s] clear thinking was evident in his answers. He was direct. Even when I disagreed with him, I knew where he stood,” Teasley said.
Saddleback, Teasley said, began to change the minds of conservative voters. Palin’s selection enthused them more.
But Mark DeMoss, a Gwinnett County public relations executive who works with evangelical groups, is cautioning voters to look beyond faith-based issues.
“While I’m personally very conservative — I’m socially conservative and I care a great deal about a candidate’s values and character — I also care a great deal about competence and experience and those things I don’t think should be mutually exclusive.”
DeMoss said that he supports the McCain-Palin ticket. Still, he said, it’s a legitimate question to ask whether Palin is qualified. Rather than focus on her values alone, DeMoss said, voters should be sure she is “ready to be president from day one.”
“That question is a fair question,” DeMoss said. “It’s not only a fair question, it’s a question we Republicans would be shouting loudly had Senator Obama made a similar pick.”