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Evangelicals Say They Led Charge For the GOP

By Alan Cooperman and Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 8, 2004; Page A01

As the presidential race was heating up in June and July, a pair of leaked documents showed that the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign was urging Christian supporters to turn over their church directories and was seeking to identify "friendly congregations" in battleground states.

Those revelations produced a flurry of accusations that the Bush campaign was leading churches to violate laws against partisan activities by tax-exempt organizations, and even some of the White House's closest religious allies said the campaign had gone too far.

Evangelical Christians, such as these activists, were often urged by churches to vote their convictions. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

Exit Poll Data Inconclusive on Increase in Evangelical Voters

Exit polls do not permit a direct comparison of how many evangelical and born-again Americans voted in 2000 and 2004 because the way pollsters identified these voters changed. Four years ago voters leaving polls were asked: "Do you consider yourself part of the conservative Christian political movement, also known as the religious right?" In 2004, the question was changed to: "Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?"

Fourteen percent answered "yes" in 2000 and 23 percent did so in 2004, but polling specialists said the 2004 wording virtually assures more affirmative answers.

The percentage of voters who said they attend church more than once a week grew from 14 to 16 percent, a significant difference in an election decided by three percentage points. These voters backed President Bush over John F. Kerry 64 percent to 35 percent. Similarly, the percent of the electorate that believes abortion should be "illegal in all cases" grew from 13 to 16 percent. These voters backed Bush by 77 percent to 22 percent.

In the two major battlegrounds, Ohio and Florida, exit polls showed Bush substantially improved his support among voters who attend church more than once a week. At the same time, the percentage of the electorate that goes to church this often actually fell.

-- Thomas B. Edsall

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But the untold story of the 2004 election, according to national religious leaders and grass-roots activists, is that evangelical Christian groups were often more aggressive and sometimes better organized on the ground than the Bush campaign. The White House struggled to stay abreast of the Christian right and consulted with the movement's leaders in weekly conference calls. But in many respects, Christian activists led the charge that GOP operatives followed and capitalized upon.

This was particularly true of the same-sex marriage issue. One of the most successful tactics of social conservatives -- the ballot referendums against same-sex marriage in 13 states -- bubbled up from below and initially met resistance from White House aides, Christian leaders said.

In dozens of interviews since the election, grass-roots activists in Ohio, Michigan and Florida credited President Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, with setting a clear goal that became a mantra among conservatives: To win, Bush had to draw 4 million more evangelicals to the polls than he did in 2000. But they also described a mobilization of evangelical Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics that took off under its own power.

In battlegrounds such as Ohio, scores of clergy members attended legal sessions explaining how they could talk about the election from the pulpit. Hundreds of churches launched registration drives, thousands of churchgoers registered to vote, and millions of voter guides were distributed by Christian and antiabortion groups.

The rallying cry for many social conservatives was opposition to same-sex marriage. But concern about the Supreme Court, abortion, school prayer and pornography also motivated these "values voters." Same-sex marriage, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, was "the hood ornament on the family values wagon that carried the president to a second term."

How Conservative Turnout Soared

Whether evangelical turnout rose nationally this year, and by how much, is unclear. Without question, however, Bush's conservative Christian base was essential to his victory.

According to surveys of voters leaving the polls, Bush won 79 percent of the 26.5 million evangelical votes and 52 percent of the 31 million Catholic votes. Turnout soared in conservative areas such as Ohio's Warren County, where Bush picked up 18,000 more votes than in 2000, and local activists said churches were the reason.

Over the summer, the Rev. Bruce Moore, pastor of Warren County's Clearcreek Christian Assembly, gave two sermons explaining a Christian's responsibility to vote. Then he passed out voter registration cards. His 400 congregants circulated them among like-minded friends, registering hundreds more voters.

"On this election, because of the issues before the state of Ohio and the nation, they were passionate," Moore said. "It was all hands on deck. I have never seen a rush for voter registration cards in my life as a minister."

Nationally, the backdrop for the mobilization of social conservatives fell into place when Massachusetts's highest court sanctioned same-sex marriage in November.

Some Christian leaders perceived not only a threat to biblical morality, but also a winning political issue. Same-sex marriage "is different from abortion," said the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark. "It touches every segment of society, schools, the media, television, government, churches. No one is left out."

Yet Bush was slow to endorse a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. In a January conference call, Rove promised impatient Christian leaders that an endorsement would be forthcoming, and it finally came Feb. 24, nearly two weeks after same-sex couples began lining up for nuptials in San Francisco.

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