In January of 2007, Focus on the Family leader James Dobson emphatically declared that he would “not vote for John McCain under any circumstances,” due to “a matter of conscience.” Coming from a top powerbroker of the Christian Right, whose radio show and magazine publications reach millions of voters, the denouncement spelled trouble for McCain.
That was then. But with the prospect of Barack Obama winning the presidency, Dobson has begun to reconsider his position and decided that the “circumstances” may now be right to support McCain after all. The question is what impact Dobson’s change of course – and more broadly the influence of the religious Right – will have on the election.
The source of Dobson's anti-McCain animus is no secret. The Arizona senator has long had an uneasy relationship with the religious Right. During the 2000 campaign, he condemned several Christian leaders – most prominently Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell – as “agents of intolerance.” On policy matters, too, McCain was not always a reliable ally, opposing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
In this light, Dobson’s initial refusal to support McCain made sense. But now that Obama, one of the country’s most liberal senators, may win the election, it looks like a serious miscalculation for a religious Conservative. Little wonder that Dobson is having second thoughts.
McCain undoubtedly would welcome Dobson’s support. Although delayed, a Dobson endorsement would still be very important for his campaign. Christian Right organizations conduct mammoth political get-out-the-vote operations with multi-million dollar bankrolls and they have millions of followers. Evangelical Christian minister Rob McCoy of California told the Washington Times that there are 62 million self-described evangelicals in the United States, of which half are registered to vote. Different polls have shown that evangelical Christians make up 30 to 40 percent of America’s approximately 280 million citizens. And while religious voters are often and unfairly portrayed as a monolithic voting block, it is nonetheless true that they can be a powerful force in any election. In 2004, for instance, the 35 percent of evangelicals who voted for President Bush proved critical to his margin of victory.
Will these voters likewise turn out for McCain? Dobson’s apparent warming toward the senator is just one example that suggests the answer is yes. There are others: In early July, for instance, several prominent Christian Right leaders endorsed McCain, overcoming their previous reluctance. To be sure, the support of religious leaders has sometimes been a mixed blessing for the senator. After initially accepting their endorsements, McCain had to distance himself from ministers Rod Parsley and John Hagee when the former’s vitriolic views on Islam and the latter’s condemnation of the Catholic Church provoked unwanted controversy. Be that as it may, the support of religious voters would be hugely significant for McCain, not least because he routinely trails Obama in national polls.
Evangelicals are the exception to this polling trend. A June Washington Post-ABC News poll found McCain getting over 68 percent of the white evangelical vote, compared to Obama's 22 percent. True, some conservative religious leaders continue to complain that McCain has insufficiently emphasized his socially conservative positions. At the same time, it is increasingly clear that he is the choice of a wide swath of religious voters.
More difficult to determine is whether these voters will show up on Election Day. Perhaps the most significant consequence of religious Right leaders’ refusal to back McCain is that it has further divided their movement. This point featured centrally in a July 1 meeting of 90 evangelical leaders in Denver, Colorado. Addressing these divisions, Mathew Staver, dean of Liberty University’s law school, said that “evangelicals are trying to unify after a fractious primary season during which no consensus candidate emerged as an evangelical favorite.” Ultimately, the Denver delegates decided that John McCain was the candidate who most shared their views. But with less than 100 days until the election, the new consensus may have come too late.
In persuading religious voters to back McCain, James Dobson has his work cut out for him. Indeed, it is not entirely clear if he himself is ready to do so. But it is becoming apparent that if the candidate most sympathetic to their views loses in November, the leaders of the religious Right, including Dobson, will be at least partly to blame.