On the Record

Can Obama Carry the Evangelical Vote?

E.J. Dionne, Michael J. Gerson, Jan Crawford Greenburg and George F. Will

E.J. Dionne joins George Will, Michael Gerson, and Jan Crawford Greenburg on This Week with George Stephanopoulos for a roundtable discussion on the impact of evangelical voters in election 2008.

George Stephanopoulos, host: Barack Obama and John McCain last night at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church out in California. It was actually riveting television for everyone who wasn’t watching the Olympics last night. We’re gonna talk about it now on the roundtable with George Will, Michael Gerson of the Council on Foreign Relations, also President Bush’s former speech writer, EJ Dionne of the Brookings Institution and “The Washington Post, and our own Jan Crawford Greenburg. And George, in some ways that forum last night wasn’t a natural fit for either Obama on the issues or McCain by his nature, but they did both quite well.

George Will: They both did well. And Obama knows that what he has to do is limit his defeat among that constituency of the evangelicals. In 2006, which is the most recent data we have on the electorate, Republican candidates got more votes from evangelical Christians than Democrat candidates got from organized labor members and African Americans combined, which means if Obama gets up to say 35%, 36% of the white evangelical vote he probably wins.

Stephanopoulos: Oh, if he gets 35% or 36%, as Bill Clinton got close to that in ’92 and ’96, he does win

E.J. Dionne: Right, and I don’t even think he has to get that close. First, thanks for not asking us about our greatest moral failures. But, you know, first, Rick Warren…

Stephanopoulos: That’s coming up.

Dionne: Rick Warren wins. That was an extraordinary debate. If you only had two hours of information, that wouldn’t be a bad thing to go on if that’s all you could cast your vote on. And he really dispelled some people’s stereotypes about evangelicals. Secondly, George is absolutely right. I think if Barack Obama cuts 5 to 10 points off the Republican lead among white evangelicals, that helps him a lot in Ohio and Indiana, Virginia, Colorado. So that’s a huge deal. And I agree, both were good. I thought McCain was very sharp. He learned something running for president for so long. Obama had more of a conversational tone which I think may have helped him with the audience he was looking for but he’s got to sharpen up for the debates.

Stephanopoulos: But he was having trouble with the audience. There was a little resistance because of his positions on the issues, particularly abortion.

Jan Crawford Greenburg
: Oh, the issues are so stark. And that came out so clearly last night. Whether it’s abortion, gay rights, the definition of evil and most importantly the Supreme Court. I think the best that Obama can hope for with this group, because he’s polling in the mid 20s is which is about what John Kerry got is that these evangelicals stay home. That they think Obama is not quite that bad so they don’t need to go out and vote for John McCain. But I think John McCain last night really went a long way in making his case with this group, energizing the group. And at the end of the day, it’s all about the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is in this election. The McCain campaign believes that’s going to turn these voters out.

Stephanopoulos: It’s interesting. I was talking to someone in the McCain campaign this morning. They thought – I’m not sure this is right, but they thought that Obama made a big mistake by scoring Clarence Thomas on issue of experience last night.

Michael Gerson: Yeah. I mean I think the forum last night illustrated a larger problem in this outreach. I think that Obama’s outreach to evangelicals is evidently sincere. He just doesn’t agree with evangelicals very much.

Stephanopoulos: But he speaks the language very naturally.

Gerson: Well, he speaks language on personal faith, but when it came to policy, on issues like faith-based regulations, on issues like the Supreme Court, on issues like stem cell, and his abortion answer, which he must have practiced, was pretty close to a gaffe. You know, talking about, you know, how it’s above his pay grade to determine, you know, the status of unborn life. I mean, it’s a good thing to do this outreach. I think it’s good for the country. It’s hard to do outreach even by talented politicians, with people you disagree with.

Stephanopoulos: But wouldn’t it have been a problem had he gone in there and told that group exactly what they wanted to hear?

Gerson: Well he couldn’t do it. It’s a natural limitation.

Dionne: I think the issue here is not, is Barack Obama going to carry the white evangelical vote? No, he’s not. No way. It’s not even going to be close. The question is, at the margins, younger evangelicals in particular care about this larger agenda. That most of that debate did not focus on abortion or stem cell research.

Stephanopoulos
: Poverty.

Dionne: It focused on poverty, on human trafficking, on all the other issues that evangelicals now care about. And Rick Warren is a symbol of this broadening agenda that evangelicals have. So, I agree, if somebody is a hard core right-to-lifer for whom that is the most important issue, then Barack Obama is not going to get their votes. But those weren’t the votes he was looking for last night.

Watch the full interview »

More