Targeting the Faithful
In the 2008 presidential campaign, both Democrats and Republicans have frequently spoken about the concept of faith and, in many cases, their own religious beliefs. To discuss the role of religious voters in the primaries and the potential impact of religion on the general election, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life turned to two former advisors to the Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney presidential campaigns. Burns Strider, formerly of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, spoke of how the focus on faith by leading Democratic candidates in the primaries could help the party’s November presidential election bid. Strider asserted that discussions of religion have allowed the Democratic Party to reconnect with the nation’s faith community. He suggested that Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s efforts to target younger evangelical Protestants could yield results in swing areas.
Mark DeMoss, former campaign advisor to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, said he believed that values should take a primary role in an election while individual religious faith should play a secondary role. DeMoss went on to describe how Romney’s presidential campaign tried to focus on the importance of common values, not common religion. DeMoss advised the current candidates to be genuine, adding that if a candidate is not comfortable talking about his faith, he shouldn’t.
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JOHN GREEN: Welcome to the Religion and Politics ’08 discussion series from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. I’m John Green, senior fellow in religion iand American politics at the Forum. Today we’ll be discussing outreach to religious voters in the 2008 presidential campaign. In this election cycle, both Democrats and Republicans are talking a lot about faith, in many cases their own faith. A good example is Mitt Romney’s long-anticipated speech on faith in America. Another example is Hillary Clinton’s participation in the Compassion Forum, when she described feeling the presence of God throughout her life. However, faith has been controversial as well. The relationship between Barack Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the endorsement of John McCain by Rev. John Hagee come to mind. Despite the potential pitfalls, the presidential campaigns have made outreach to religious voters a priority. How have the campaigns faced the challenges posed by faith and values? What are the keys to successful appeals to people of faith, and what role is religion likely to play in the general election? To explore these questions, we have two distinguished guests. Burns Strider is former senior advisor and director of faith outreach for Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign. He recently co-founded the Eleison Group, which is a faith and values consulting firm that connects nonprofits, businesses, and progressive and Democratic candidates with the nation’s faith community. Mark DeMoss served as an advisor on faith and values issues to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his presidential campaign. He is the founder of the DeMoss Group, a public relations firm that works with Christian organizations and leaders. Gentlemen, welcome both of you, and it’s a great pleasure to have you with us today.
BURNS STRIDER: Thanks. Glad to be here.
GREEN: I’d like to begin by talking about the role of religious voters and the strategies of the primary campaigns that you worked on. Mark, let’s begin with you. What challenges did the Romney campaign face with regard to religious voters?
MARK DEMOSS: Really three, I think. One is, obviously, he was a Mormon, is a Mormon. Secondly, he was little known nationally. He really hadn’t been a national figure as a governor of Massachusetts. And then, third, I would suggest – something I didn’t think would be a problem earlier in the primaries because he didn’t seem particularly viable but later became more of an issue on this front – and that is the presence of a Southern Baptist evangelical candidate in Mike Huckabee. I think those were the challenges that Mitt Romney faced.
GREEN: How did the campaign attempt to deal with those challenges early and late?
DEMOSS: I think – and I’ve said all along really – I think that it’s more important – I’m more interested that a candidate shares my values than that he or she shares my faith or religion particularly. I think on that respect, Mitt Romney scores quite well. Interestingly, it was to me at least, that religious conservatives and evangelicals had for years, decades really, worked hand-in-hand with Mormons, with Jews, with conservative Catholics and a host of people of faith on issues in which they had common ground and common values – life issues and many other issues. So it was interesting to me that somebody – a Mormon – that we might have worked with in the trenches fighting pornography or defending unborn life – suddenly the rules seemed to change for some people when a Mormon wanted to put himself forward for president. But I think, in Mitt Romney’s case, he dealt with this the way he dealt with the whole campaign, which was to just put himself forward. And he is what he is, his family is what they are, and I think he made tremendous strides in a relatively short period of time coming from – not from nowhere but from – certainly not from a national stage.
GREEN: Burns, what about the Hillary Clinton campaign? I imagine that you all faced some challenges with religious voters as well.
STRIDER: Sure. Thanks for having us here. This is good. The Pew Forum does good work, and it’s very helpful out in the field where all of us are out working and doing our stuff out there. With Sen. Clinton one of the challenges – a little opposite – she’s very well-known or at least there’s a perception of her out in the nation’s faith community. And, as many of us know, over the past 15, 20 years, polling has always indicated a pretty low number of people who would say that Hillary Clinton is a woman of faith, personal faith. So you come in with that challenge 16 months ago when this began. So what I had to work with was kind of this gulf between what was the reality and what was the perception because in reality you had this really active United Methodist who had spent her life active in the church. I always like to point out – from church picnics on the governor’s mansion lawn in Little Rock to leading Sunday school to all kind of stuff. Very active, very heartfelt, but the perceptions – it’s a big challenge. How do you do that and what do you do? That was basically the paradigm, the challenge, I took up and went forward with and spent my time understanding where to build those bridges, how to build them, how to help her connect because it’s not a matter of changing or moving or redirecting someone’s authenticity. The authenticity is set in stone, whatever it is. So that’s what you’re going to share. And so it was a matter of just delivering, of laying out a strategy to deliver who she is to the American voters, in this case, the Democratic primary voters. We spent a lot of time on the grassroots level. We enjoy and love and appreciate the leaders in the clergy and faith community, and we know them and carried on a relationship. But we spent all of our time literally in the grassroots, working down in churches and faith communities in the smallest of small towns out in the country, be it West Virginia or Ohio, Texas, wherever. The idea was to put ourselves in the middle of the tightrope and work from both ends, to grow the grassroots up and to grow and maintain our relationships with the leaders of the faith community.
GREEN: You both have alluded in one way or another to the role of the candidate. How important is the candidate and his or her own religiosity in reaching out to religious voters. Mark?
DEMOSS: The candidate is all-important because that’s what this is all about. So I think staffs and strategies and consultants can’t make a candidate something they’re actually not. I certainly wouldn’t try if offered the opportunity, if that’s what somebody wanted me to do. But I think, in Mitt Romney’s case, the important thing was not to reach out on religious terms, but to reach out on values terms. I’ve often said that as an evangelical Southern Baptist, in terms of values, I have more in common with most Mormons than I would with a liberal Southern Baptist or a liberal Methodist or an Episcopalian or you name it. I remember the governor telling me one day that – he said, look, there are Mormons who wouldn’t vote for me. Likewise, there are Southern Baptists that I wouldn’t vote for or haven’t voted for. So I think, for us, this really was about values. Do I have common values with this man, Mitt Romney, regardless of whether we worship the same way on Sunday? Again, I think we made good progress. But the candidate is the product. He or she is what we’re about, and I wouldn’t work for [just] any candidate.
GREEN: Mark, you mentioned the challenge that [former] Gov. Romney faced having Mike Huckabee in the race, a former Southern Baptist minister. Burns, it seems to me that Sen. Clinton faced a similar problem with Sen. Obama, someone who speaks very comfortably about his faith. How did that impact what you all did?
STRIDER: Well, that’s a good question. It’s an interesting one. I’ve never quite seen it that way. I actually saw it from my perspective: Democratic Party reconnecting, coming from a different direction than Republicans, making up ground, so to speak, in our conversation with the nation’s faith community. I saw it as a good thing, a real blessing, that all three of the leading Democratic candidates – Sen. Clinton, Sen. Obama and Sen. [John] Edwards – were being active, vocal and honest about their faith. I thought it was good for the whole primary process, good for the party, and, ultimately, it’s going to be good in November, I believe. So I thought it was a good thing. Now, with that said, Sen. Obama is extremely articulate. He’s got a strong testimony and he gives it well. You don’t compete with that. You find things you do well and go do them. It’s like playing checkers with my 6-year-old the other day and he was extremely focused on the bottom right-hand corner where he had no chips. Finally I said, you can’t do anything now. You can’t do anything about that. Get up here in the upper left-hand corner where your chips are and play ball. So you focus on your strengths and move forward that way. But I thought it was profoundly a part of the historic nature of the Democratic primary, and part of what was good about this primary was that all three were very vocal and active in sharing who they were, the whole person – including their faith.
DEMOSS: I want to say this, too. I agree with those who say, your faith is important and it defines you. But I don’t think faith should be a calling card in political races. For example, [former] Gov. [Mike] Huckabee ran an ad in South Carolina before the primary there that identified him as a Christian leader. And he said, my faith defines me, it’s who I am, and so on. I agree with that as a Christian. He didn’t run that ad in Michigan; he didn’t run that ad in Florida. If your faith defines you, it defines you in all 50 states or it doesn’t define you at all, in my view. That’s what I’m troubled by – that faith becomes a political football or a calling card in whose faith is better. I really think a lot of us are going to be troubled if the day would ever occur in this country, and I suppose it could, where neither candidate of its party really professed faith. What would a lot of religious – certainly religious conservatives would be in a real quandary there. That’s why I sort of preach the importance of common values, not necessarily common faith. Would I like the president to share my faith? Sure. Would I like Mitt Romney’s credentials and intellect and character and competence and experience combined with an evangelical Southern Baptist faith? I’d love it. But I didn’t have it, so I liked everything else. But there’re still a lot of folks saying in this country, I vote on this. I heard repeatedly from people who said, how can you support a Mormon when we have one of our own running for president? We should support one of our own, a fellow Southern Baptist. I think there are some other things that ought to be part of a president, like competence and experience and so on. These are interesting times.
STRIDER: I come at it relationally. There’re different ways and I – you have to literally start by picking up the phone or hopping on a plane and going and seeing somebody, sitting down and talking to them. The last few years has seen a shifting, changing dynamic out in the faith community around the country. There’re some younger leaders out there; there are more leaders. People in the pews have asked to have a bigger conversation or to take all of their values and discuss them, not just two or three. So you see a growth in discussions and activity around creation care and poverty and these issues. That’s been helpful to my work and to Democratic work because as that conversation has grown, at the same time, our desire to have a conversation has grown as well and the meetings have been good. I’ve been all over this country for 16 months, meeting daily in small groups and large groups. When you sit down and say to a group of clergy that we’re here – From my side of the table, maybe we hadn’t been here a lot, but we’re here now. We want a relationship. We want a conversation. Can we talk a little while about those things that maybe we agree about and see how we can work together? Nine times out of ten – I believe more than nine times out of ten – you could have an entire meeting with a group of evangelicals or Catholics or anyone, any group of clergy, and hot-button issues would not come up. They really are inclined and motivated to find ways to work together to move the ball forward on various issues. So we just started. We just started moving around the country and talking. Beyond that, you do the things campaigns do: database building, modeling, projecting, targeting. But it still comes down to yourself, your candidate, your validators out on the road moving around in the states and – people joke because I say it all the time – just connecting dots, connecting people to people and having a conversation and creating a relationship. The very best, which is extremely important, that Democrats can do is take the edge off by creating a relationship. And when it gets down to time to have a debate, the debate can be a lot more honest because you know each other and there’s a different level of respect and you can focus in on these issues that really matter in families’ lives.
GREEN: Mark, how did the Romney campaign go about getting the message before the voters you wanted to pursue?
DEMOSS: Tactically, there are small steps and there are giant steps, and you need them all. So they did, I think, what most campaigns would do too, with various committees and sort of group-specific committees, faith committees and so on. We did a small meeting very early on, before he had actually declared in October of ’06, at the governor’s home in Massachusetts, where I’d invited about 15 evangelical leaders to meet him. For three hours we sat in their den and had a discussion with the governor and his wife. Then there were some bigger things that had some effect, I think. Writing is an important thing, having people writing on your behalf. I wrote a memo, a long memo – it was about five pages – that I mailed to 150 religious leaders and that found its way to The New York Times, which did a story on it. Then it became a subject of quite a bit of discussion and debate. That was really making a case for how evangelicals could support a Mormon in this particular case. So that helped, and other people are writing things. In our case, we really had to do two things. We had to do something that most campaigns don’t have to do on this subject. I think before we could sign up religious voters to endorse or support this candidate, we had to take some steps to neutralize certain religious voters and leaders who would have naturally been inclined to renounce this candidacy, to say we can’t in good faith endorse a Mormon. On that front, I think we had great success in neutralizing – which for us was success if we could neutralize folks who, left to their own devices, probably would have come out early and said, I don’t know who I’m for, but I can’t support a Mormon. There was not a single – to my knowledge – a single reputable evangelical leader that ever said publicly we should not support a Mormon. And so I think that was pretty good progress.
GREEN: We talked earlier at the beginning about some of the controversies that come along with faith. Religion and religious values can be very powerful in campaigns. But they can also be very powerful in the opposite direction. Burns, how does a candidate deal with religious controversies that come up?
STRIDER: Very carefully. As we were talking earlier, this is foundational work. It’s the bottom of the pyramid. It’s who you are. It’s your values. I agree with the discussion on faith and values. I didn’t jump in a minute ago, but I understand what you’re saying and the power of that, the importance of that authenticity. If you set up the facts as they are, if you set up the authenticity, the narrative – back home we say testimony – if you set up the testimony that’s honest and real and you share it, you’re certainly going to have those out there that have personal opinions all the way around because it’s a personal issue. If something grows to the level of a controversy, you have to understand. You have to be ready to stand by your guns. You’ve got to know – it’s very good commentary there about shutting down things before they happen. You want to know the talkers. You want to have validators ready to move instantly, clergy around the country. You want to have those cell numbers of key talkers that are going to be talking about this and immediately start making sure the facts are where they need to be and people are out there talking. It can be tough. It can be harrowing. We certainly saw and experienced things this time. And you have to know what you’re doing. I mean, you certainly don’t want to create controversy by – if it’s Sen. McCain and Pastor Hagee and that type of stuff going on – Maybe I can get some enlightenment here, but on our side of the aisle, we’re like, how did the marksmen become the folks who couldn’t shoot straight? How did that happen because it was a very obvious misstep from the beginning, and it remained a misstep to the end. In some ways you made the same people mad twice in the way it carried out. So that was interesting, I thought. So a big part of this is knowing this community and being ready to do it well and do it right. That shuts down a lot of controversy right there.
DEMOSS: Yeah, you have to deal with controversy carefully, honestly and quickly, and repeatedly in some cases. And there is no substitute for honesty. In this day and age particularly, no one has the luxury of being cute or clever, even for a minute. When you send people out to answer something – or spin it, as we say in this business unfortunately – you can’t get away with that today. There are too many people watching, and there are too many people pulling up tape. So I don’t understand the people and the consultants and the staffers who even try to be clever because you can’t pull it off today.
DEMOSS: I think it will play a big role. I don’t know if it’s bigger than it should be necessarily. I’d like to see the day when religion didn’t play a role. I think religious voters have a role to play. But I’d like to really change the – one of my missions, I think, is to change the debate from religion to values. Values should play a huge role in a campaign. Religion, I think, should play a secondary role. And that, to some of my friends and colleagues, is probably a little heretical. But I really believe it. After all, we really don’t know as voters a very great deal about most or any of these candidates’ or past presidents’ personal faith anyway. We know what they tell us. But we don’t know. And a lot of times, particularly religious conservatives have put great stock in a candidate who they thought was a fellow evangelical only to find out, gee, maybe they weren’t, were disappointed. Well, if your interest had been in common values rather than common theology, you might have been less disappointed.
GREEN: Could be. Burns, what do you see happening in the fall campaign?
STRIDER: You’ve got a really robust and pretty smart – very smart – operation coming out of the Obama shop right now. They’re focused on not just evangelicals but zeroing in on young evangelicals. And we see out there – and I believe on your Web page – that Sen. McCain is not necessarily performing to the level past Republicans have at this point in the game with evangelicals. Sen. Obama hasn’t necessarily picked all of those up yet, but he’s in a position to do that in the middle, in that swing area. You come down to cycles like the past two, you pick up two or three voters in each precinct in Ohio, and it’s a done deal. So I think they’re smart in how they’re targeting because probably out of your own numbers, if you were to cross tab out the younger of the evangelicals, you would see a greater propensity for Sen. Obama. Their strategy in going after them is pretty good. He’s got a good team – a dedicated team and a heartfelt team. They’re looking out after him and who he is. So that’s new on the Democratic side. It’s a new component to the campaign. I think it’s a real one, an honest one. I applaud them on what they’re doing. I think they’re going to do well out there. Sen. McCain’s side, I don’t know their strategy. My guess is – I’ll throw something his way. My guess is that he’ll surprise us at the *[upcoming] compassion forum, and around it we’ll find a deeper faith than what pundits and talkers are assuming is there right now. But at the same time, I think that he’s got a real challenge there, and it’s just about flip-flopped this time in the dynamic there. But he’s got a real challenge in moving beyond the very core of that traditional base. For those evangelicals who are looking at both as an option, I think McCain is the one with the challenge.
GREEN: We’ve been talking implicitly and explicitly about the evangelical vote, which is of course very important. But do you see other religious communities that are in play this time, Mark?
DEMOSS: Oh sure. There are 50-plus million Catholics, many of whom are conservative on some social issues and more moderate or progressive or liberal on other issues. I think that’s a huge group, for example.
STRIDER: Yeah, absolutely. Catholic vote, understanding who they are. This is a cycle that the economy is playing significantly strong in for obvious reasons. Folks out there are hurting and they need attention. You cannot dismiss the opportunity again to share your values, to use your values to place huge groups of working-class Catholics together under an umbrella and then share the values you have on the economy with them, and on strong families and how you believe in creating jobs and stuff out there. It works. I would argue that from recent work I did out there, where we took an economic message into working-class Catholic neighborhoods. We weren’t talking faith; we weren’t sharing testimony. We were just sharing the straight-up Clinton message in those Catholic neighborhoods. I think we know how we performed in exit polls with them and the evangelicals. When you close your Bible and move on beyond that, you don’t dismiss the work on values. Our values carry through our lives and what we do, and there is a great way to frame and connect with voters.
GREEN: We’re almost out of time, gentlemen. But I can’t resist asking you each the following question: What advice would you give to your party about going forward in November when it comes to reaching out to religious voters of one kind or another? Mark, what advice would you give Sen. McCain?
DEMOSS: Two things: Be genuine and be respectful. Be who you are. If you’re not comfortable talking about your faith, don’t go try to talk about your faith. And be respectful. I think all of us want a greater level of respect and civility. And I’d love to see campaign ads that did not mention the name of your opponent. Tell me why I should vote for you, not why I shouldn’t vote for this other guy. So those would be my two pieces of advice for anybody, not just Sen. McCain.
GREEN: Burns, any advice for Sen. Obama?
STRIDER: Very similar. It’s just keep it real, as he’s doing. Stay on that path. And No. 2, keep expanding that conversation. Keep growing it out there. People want to talk to all their potential leaders. Keep expanding that conversation and having that conversation with a growing segment of this community.
GREEN: On that note, we’ll have to wrap up our conversation. Thanks very much to Mark DeMoss and Burns Strider for being with us. I’m John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Thank you for joining us.
*The Saddleback Civil Forum on Leadership and Compassion, to be hosted by Pastor Rick Warren, is scheduled for Aug. 16.
This written transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling, grammar and accuracy by Amy Stern.