COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—Focus on the Family, which describes itself as “a global Christian ministry that helps families thrive,” was founded by James Dobson in 1977. Its sprawling campus faces Pikes Peak, the most-visited mountain in North America, rising 14,110 feet above sea level. Like the pink granite summit that beckoned miners during the Colorado Gold Rush, this city about 70 miles south of Denver has become a mecca—not for seekers of precious metals, but for believers in Christian values—earning it the nickname the “evangelical Vatican.”
Along with four like-minded organizations around the country, Focus on the Family has sent mailings to 5 million eligible voters, with the goal of registering a million of them. The Georgia-based Faith and Freedom Coalition plans to reach—by telephone, text, mailer, or e-mail—17.1 million voters in 15 states, including Colorado. Conservative activists from the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council parked their specially branded “Values Bus” in front of the state Capitol before the presidential debate in Denver, part of a 24-state tour preaching fiscal and social-conservative values.
Here and in scores of small towns and big cities across the country, conservative activists are working phone banks, canvassing neighborhoods, and passing out literature to get out the faith vote on Nov. 6. “If we know they care about life and marriage and religious-freedom issues, we want them to understand that [the election] does affect their world,” says Carrie Earll, senior director of issues for CitizenLink, a Focus on the Family affiliate that does not endorse candidates. “We want them to be connecting their values to who they vote for.”
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About one of five Colorado voters in the 2008 presidential election were born-again Christians, according to exit polling. Evangelicals are even more prevalent in other swing states, including Ohio (30 percent), Iowa (31 percent), and North Carolina (44 percent), but they could also have an outsized impact on the presidential election in Colorado because of its religious-conservative hub and because the race is closer here than in those states.
Nationwide, evangelicals cast 26 percent of the vote in 2008, with 74 percent favoring Republican John McCain and 24 percent supporting Obama. Born-again Christians were a slightly smaller portion of the electorate that reelected President Bush in 2004 (23 percent), but the spread between his and Democrat John Kerry’s support was 7 percentage points wider than the gap between McCain and Obama.
Some Republican strategists say that 2012 is not shaping up to be like 2004, when conservative Christians helped push Bush to victory. While Bush was a born-again Christian who was considered part of the social-conservative movement, Republican nominee Mitt Romney is a Mormon who once vowed to protect access to abortion and gay rights in his adopted home state, liberal Massachusetts. Earlier this month, he set off a firestorm when, facing a double-digit gender gap in the polls, he told The Des Moines Register editorial board, “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” His campaign insisted that Romney’s antiabortion position is steadfast.
Even some religious conservative leaders came to Romney’s defense, pointing to the stark contrast between him and a Democratic president who champions abortion rights, wants health insurance plans to cover birth control, and backs same-sex marriage. Still, among rank-and-file Christian voters, the default level of enthusiasm and grassroots activity may not be enough to tip the Nov. 6 election. “Social conservatives will vote for him, but I don’t think the passion is there for Mitt Romney,” says Republican strategist Patrick Davis, who lives here. “I’m not seeing as much fervor to make phone calls and knock on doors. He wasn’t their first choice.” The Romney campaign’s challenge is to boost excitement on the Christian Right as much as possible without alienating undecided, more-moderate voters.
Despite a shoestring campaign, Romney’s former Republican rival, Rick Santorum, won Colorado’s nonbinding caucus in February. The former senator from Pennsylvania, known as a staunch abortion foe, campaigned hard while Romney had spent little time here. “A lot of people were shocked when Rick Santorum won the Colorado caucus, because people underestimated the size and scope of the conservative movement in Colorado,” says Santorum’s top campaign adviser, John Brabender. “Now they’re motivated more than anything by voting against Obama. Romney is meeting their qualifications, but they prefer someone who talks about their issues more”—as Santorum did at length.
But the 2012 campaign pulls Romney in another direction. The former governor’s background as a venture capitalist and business consultant obviously lends itself to his focus on the economy; what’s more, recession-weary voters are also demanding it. Polls show that the economy, health care, education, taxes, and the national debt are more pressing concerns.
Social conservatives are pushing back against the idea that their priorities are on the back burner. Strong families need a strong economy and vice versa, they say. “There’s so much overlap between social conservatives and the economic voters that you almost can’t parse that out,” says Bruce Hausknecht, a legal expert at CitizenLink. “Social conservatives are huge supporters of limited government, keeping the budget within your means, and pay as you go.”
A recent tour of the Focus on the Family complex included the studio that produces a daily radio broadcast reaching more than 1.3 million people in North America; plaques marking the 2010 Super Bowl commercial in which football star Tim Tebow and his mother celebrated her decision not to have an abortion; wall-covering collages of family photographs submitted by supporters; and a bullet hole from 1996, when an armed gunman took four people hostage.
Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, a devout and staunchly antiabortion Catholic whose addition to the ticket heartened religious conservatives, recently taped a radio broadcast with Jim Daly, Focus on the Family’s president. One major conversation topic: Obama’s health care overhaul, which requires employers to include birth control in their health insurance plans. Catholic institutions fervently objected. Obama’s compromise—that religious groups could put the burden on the insurer instead—has not resolved the issue for many and could cost him votes. “Religious rights. That’s our first freedom,” Ryan said in the interview. “And government needs to respect these rights.”
To conduct the national voter-registration drive, Focus on the Family joined with the Family Research Council, Americans United for Life, National Right to Life, the Susan B. Anthony List Education Fund, and the American Principles Project. The groups matched their lists of people who had contacted them at least once with voter-registration lists in 21 states and found 5 million unregistered Christians. “That was quite a surprise to us,” Earll says. “We had assumed that the people on our mailings lists were all registered. What we learned is that we can’t take for granted that people take action on behalf of their convictions.”
The Faith and Freedom Coalition is also undertaking an unprecedented outreach effort. Founder Ralph Reed said that its voter database is five times larger than the list of social conservatives used by the Bush campaign in 2004, thanks to advances in technology and micro-targeting. Its multimillion-dollar effort aims to reach voters at least seven times: through three mailings, three phones calls, and one e-mail or cell-phone text message. The group sent out texts to Ohio voters on Oct. 2, for example, reminding them about the start of early voting. “There’s never been anything like it,” says Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, who added that grassroots networking is more important than ever at a time when voters are oversaturated by campaign ads. “If you live in a battleground state, you can’t even turn on TV anymore. The greatest premium is on who can knock on the most doors, call the most people, and turn out the most votes.”
Reed says he expects Romney to do better than the 68 percent of the evangelical vote that Bush got in 2000 but not as well as the 78 percent he captured in 2004. “Nobody can predict what will happen, but I think it’s different when you’re talking about an incumbent president with a record on stem-cell research, marriage, and judicial appointments,” Reed says, referring to Bush. He expects the massive outreach effort to drive between 3 million and 5 million more evangelical voters to the polls than in 2008, expanding their share of the electorate by 1 or 2 percentage points, although that will depend on how many other types of voters cast ballots.
To win Colorado’s nine electoral votes, Romney must dominate El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs, to offset anticipated losses in more-Democratic areas such as Denver and Pueblo. In the last three weeks of September, Colorado Springs ranked 11th nationally in presidential advertising (it has fallen somewhat since then), according to the Wesleyan Media Project. Denver is the top media market.
A robust campaign behind a “personhood amendment” would have helped drive Colorado Republicans to the polls, but backers of the initiative aimed at protecting fetuses didn’t collect enough signatures to get it on the ballot. Only one state, Minnesota, is slated to have a constitutional amendment on the November ballot banning same-sex marriage, compared with 13 states in 2004 and three in 2008, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
In North Carolina, which in May became the latest state and the last in the South to ban gay marriage, the constitutional amendment passed overwhelmingly, except in the state’s biggest and more moderate metropolitan areas, including the cities of Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, Asheville, and Greensboro. Romney will need to tamp down the president’s expected margins of victory in those areas to carry the state that Obama won by fewer than 15,000 votes in 2008. In Iowa, Romney’s success depends on strong turnout in the western, most conservative parts of the state, where Santorum ran well in the January caucus.
Social conservatives are “one of the wild cards of the election,” Brabender says. “Romney doesn’t have to worry about courting the votes of social conservatives, but there is a difference between whether they will vote for him and putting a bumper sticker on their car,” he says. “It’s a question of intensity.”
This article appeared in print as "God Willing."
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