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.