John McCain was practically doomed from the start. George Bush’s unpopular presidency and unpopular war would have made it difficult for any Republican to win this year. Couple that with Barack Obama’s meteoric star turn, and his win was almost an inevitability.
McCain also made some mistakes. Despite what many will say, however, Sarah Palin wasn’t one of them. She was a direct response to criticism that McCain would not significantly address the interests of the conservative base. She did that, and handily.
But what neither McCain nor Palin did was speak directly or adequately to so-called values voters — the swath of Americans who vote on guns and god. And they’re not only on the right.
It’s incredibly unpopular for conservative intellectuals to talk about these values voters. In recent years following two Bush elections it’s become almost de rigeur to announce the death of the religious right, and to simply ignore the religious middle. Acknowledging that certain Americans still vote on values, and that they represent an important voting bloc is practically unheard of, and terribly out of fashion. Liberal pundits report jubilantly that God is dead, and conservative pundits seem utterly apathetic.
But pundits don’t always have a good handle on middle America and their interests, and I thought from the beginning of this election that values voters were being ignored. I know all about the economy and the war on terror, but as a gun-owner and hunter, I also wanted to hear about McCain’s solid record on gun control, land use, conservation and hunting — not just Palin’s. And I definitely wanted to hear more about Obama and Joe Biden’s horrendous records.
I likewise wanted to hear more from McCain on abortion, gay marriage, prayer in school, and his faith. And it’s safe to say religious Republicans weren’t the only ones who felt this way. After all, forty-eight percent of Democrats consider themselves "absolutely committed to Christianity." That’s nearly half.
The looming presence of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently the economic crisis, though, forced these issues to take a back seat — in fact, they weren’t even in the car. But any good debater and campaigner knows how to tell voters what issues are important.
In a country that is 78% Christian, and where 30% own guns, isn’t it reasonable to assume social issues are still something voters think about when they go to the polls, and later the voting booth?
The day before the election, I talked to Field & Stream editor Anthony Licata, whose readers are presumably concerned about hunting, gun issues and conservation. Though the left has marginalized hunters like Sarah Palin as part of the fringe, it turns out that 78% of Americans approve of hunting. The number jumps to 90% when you include fishing in that category. But Licata thinks that those issues, important as they are, were trumped this year.
“Sportsmen — just like other Americans — are deeply impacted by the economy and foreign policy, so it’s only natural that those pressing issues take center stage. We hope that no matter who is elected will respect the voices and concerns of sportsmen by working to protect habitat, foster hunting and fishing access, and preserve our rights to keep and bear arms."
Laura Ingraham, conservative pundit, author, and a Christian herself, agreed. "When people are hurting as much financially as they are right now, other issues — terrorism, and various social issues, get lost in the economic panic. This (and the unpopularity of Bush) made it very hard for McCain."
They’re right, of course. But if social issues were so unimportant this year, why the outrage over Obama’s suggestion that middle Americans bitterly cling to guns and religion, which dominated the news cycle for weeks? Why the scrutiny of Obama’s religious views, and of Palin’s? Indeed, others I talked to weren’t as forgiving, and wish that McCain and Palin had done more to speak to them.
Alexander Silva is a carpenter in Waukesha, WI. He’s a 43-year-old married Republican and a Christian. "A few months ago conservatives let it be known that we weren’t happy with McCain, and no we haven’t ‘come around,’ we’ve just ‘settled down.’ Has McCain done enough to address Christian voters? No."
For Silva, abortion was the most important issue this election. "Life is 100% of my vote." He thought McCain’s "reaching to the pew," (when he did it at all) wasn’t genuine, but necessary. "And because of that, that’s how we’re approaching the voting booth for him: not genuine, but necessary." He voted for McCain precisely because he is pro-life, not because of the war, and not because of the economy.
Shawn Stephens is a 42-year-old bi-vocational minister in Mount Juliet, TN. He thinks McCain lost values voters back in the primary. "McCain’s spurning of the moral base of the GOP had a pronounced chilling effect on support for him. Neo-cons chose McCain while the moral or at least less pragmatic conservatives split their vote among Thompson, Huckabee and Romney."
Furthermore, he thinks religious voters are willing to overlook issues like the economy and war when it comes to voting in a national leader. "The religious voters I know vote on specific issues almost every single time, most prominently abortion and the defense/protection of the sanctity of marriage. They don’t have a horse in the race and are incredibly frustrated that these issues rarely get any traction with the rest of the population and among the leading candidates." Stephens also voted for McCain, and specifically because of values. "Bottom line is religious voters give social issues equal, if not more weight, than the economy and foreign policy."
Evangelicals in 2000 and 2004 went overwhelmingly to George Bush. According to a Pew report, white evangelicals cast nearly one-fourth of all votes in those elections, 68 percent for Bush in 2000 and 78 percent in 2004. But this year, younger evangelicals ages 18 to 29 were less likely to vote for McCain than older evangelicals were. A September poll conducted for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly found that 62 percent of under-30 evangelicals planned to vote for McCain, while 73 percent of those over 30 did.
So did evangelicals stay home this year? Or did they vote for Obama? It’s too early to tell, but there’s reason to believe a surprising number voted Democratic. Wade Boyles, Democratic candidate for North Carolina House of Representatives, wrote me, "Barack Obama is the inspiration for my run for public office this year. Barack represents my family’s values of unconditional love, and helping those less fortunate than ourselves. He represents the teachings of Jesus’ famous sermon on the Mount."
Jon Trott is a Chicago-based Christian who founded a Facebook group called Evangelicals for Obama. For him, Obama was simply the better Christian, despite his stance on abortion. "I voted early for Obama on the basis of his wisdom, character, and intelligence, all of which seem to me to be impressive and at least partially rooted in biblical values and understanding, and on his stated goals as president to be a centrist, a healer, and a uniter rather than continuing the divisive political approaches of the past eight years. I am deeply impressed by Barack Obama’s Christianity, his willingness to talk about the need for humility, and his willingness to admit he has and will fail at times. Refreshing."
Trott, in fact, doesn’t consider McCain a Christian. Other evangelical Obama voters I talked to seemed to share the sentiment, describing some of McCain’s policies as less-than-Christian and pointing to his alleged infidelity as proof.
How is it that a prisoner of war, who wrote of finding God at the Hanoi Hilton, who’s denounced torture methods on other prisoners of war by Americans, who is pro-life, against gay marriage, an adoptive parent, and a self-proclaimed Christian, is thought of as anything other than Christian? The short answer: John McCain did not do enough to convince values voters he spoke their language.
Back to guns. John McCain’s record is solid. The NRA endorsed him in early October, saying, "He’s cast more than 60 votes in the Senate in support of the Second Amendment." The NRA spent more than $2.3 million opposing Obama. I spoke to NRA Spokesman Andrew Arulanandam about the seeming lack of prominence this election cycle has given to gun issues. "I think there was a great effort to try to sweep gun owners and hunters under the proverbial carpet this year. Obama pandered to gun owners. Actually, I think ‘deceived them’ is more appropriate. His record either in the US Senate or the IL Senate has been to support gun control every chance he had, which includes supporting gun bans like the one we saw in DC."
What a brilliant opportunity for McCain to have drawn clear distinctions between his record and Obama’s, on an issue that every day Americans care deeply about. As Andrew said, "We have 4 million dues-paying members, and gun issues are incredibly important to them, regardless of whether they are Democrats or Republicans. And despite all other issues on the table, talking about the gun issue is one way to energize a solid base that will not just go vote for you, but will go out and work for you." Another missed chance by McCain.
Is it that moderate Republicans like McCain consider it unseemly to talk about values? Or did he truly believe that the economy and the war were the only items on the menu, and that once-polarizing and galvanizing social issues that make up the moral fabric of every American voter just evaporated? It’s in times of crisis that average Americans rely on their faith and their values the most — not bitterly as Obama suggested, but triumphantly and defiantly. McCain was the perfect candidate to rally these voters, whether they considered themselves conservatives, moderates or liberals. Values voters are alive and well, and the next presidential candidate would be wise to recall Mark Twain’s famous words before counting them out: "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."