Politics & Policy

McCain’s Evangelical Problem

How McCain can pull ahead of the Dems.

After months of speeches and debates, and nearly $1 billion in total campaign spending to date, the presidential race is a dead heat.

A head-to-head showdown between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama is now too close to call — 45.9 percent to 44.6 percent — based on an averaging of national polls by realclearpolitics.com. A head-to-head showdown between McCain and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is also razor-thin, 46 percent to 45.7 percent.

#ad#Now, a poll of likely Christian voters offers evidence of why the McCain campaign is struggling to gain real traction and a lead that can last. The poll was conducted among 1,000 likely Christian voters early last week, on behalf of November Communications, Inc., the company I founded in 2000. McLaughlin & Associates, a leading polling firm for many Republican candidates, but unaffiliated in the current presidential campaign, conducted the survey.

The Arizona senator is losing the Christian vote decisively to both Obama and Clinton, even though the poll was conducted as the recent firestorm over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. erupted.

If the general election were held today, McCain would lose the Christian vote to the Democratic nominee — 36 percent to 45 percent — with 19 percent of Christian voters currently undecided.

Among Protestants, McCain pulls even with the Democrats at 40 percent. But the Democrats have a whopping 32-point lead over McCain among Catholics.

Among white evangelical Protestants, McCain is doing better (51 percent to 28 percent), but clearly they have not rallied behind him at this point.

By contrast, the 2004 exit polls found that George W. Bush beat John Kerry among Protestants (59 percent to 40 percent), Catholics (52 percent to 47 percent), and white evangelical Protestants (78 percent to 21 percent).

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How is it possible that McCain is doing so poorly among Christian voters, and the Democrats are doing so well among them? Especially as Reverend Wright Week kicked off?

To be sure, the brouhaha over Obama’s pastor may take more time to sink into the public consciousness, particularly among self-described Christians. In the weeks ahead, polls may pick up subtle or significant changes. But this poll highlights just what a serious problem McCain has.

#ad#James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, said publicly and repeatedly that he couldn’t back McCain for president. “Speaking as a private individual, I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances,” said Dobson.

The Republican party, Dobson recently warned, “seems poised to select a nominee who did not support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage, who voted for embryonic stem-cell research to kill nascent human beings, who opposed tax cuts that ended the marriage penalty, who has little regard for freedom of speech, who organized the ‘Gang of 14’ to preserve filibusters, and who has a legendary temper and who often uses foul and obscene language. Should John McCain capture the nomination as many assume, I believe this general election will offer the worst choices for president in my lifetime.”

With a radio audience of seven to nine million listeners per week, Dobson is a voice McCain can ill afford to have against him.

No evangelical or Catholic leader today has the power to single-handedly throw tens of millions of votes one way or another, and McCain would lose credibility with all voters if he suddenly pandered to anyone. But McCain and the GOP need a clear and convincing strategy to win Christian voters back — and fast.

One issue where McCain could gain traction among Christians: focusing consistently and effectively on how Islamic extremism affects the safety of American families, the price of oil, and the strength of our economy.

A number of evangelical leaders have told me they believe the threat of radical Islam is the biggest “family issue” in this campaign.

I couldn’t agree more. There are many critical family issues in this campaign, to be sure — human life, marriage, and judicial nominees, to name just a few.

But what else matters if jihadist organization and/or rogue states build, buy, or steal nuclear weapons and detonate them inside the U.S.?

Also, McCain should make Israel an issue. We asked American Christian voters: “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for a candidate for President of the United States if you knew that candidate would strongly advocate policies to protect America from radical Islamic terrorism; protect Israel from a nuclear attack by Iran; protect the capital of Israel — Jerusalem — from being divided with Palestinian Muslims; and refuse to pressure Israel to make diplomatic concessions that could endanger Israel’s security?”

Overall, nearly half (45 percent) say they are more likely to vote for such a candidate, including 45 percent of Protestants and 52 percent of evangelical Protestants. Among Catholics — only 26 percent of them support McCain now — 44 percent would be more likely to vote for such a candidate.

McCain’s trip to Israel last week was a good first step in reaching a demographic group he is currently losing. But he must do much more — and be consistent — if he is to win Catholics and evangelicals back from the Democrats in numbers large enough to win this campaign in November.

 – Joel C. Rosenberg is a New York Times best-selling author who has served as a senior aide to Steve Forbes, Rush Limbaugh, and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His latest political thriller, Dead Heat, was just released from Tyndale.

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