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Evangelicals Say They Led Charge For the GOP

"A few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization," Bush said. "Their actions have created confusion on an issue that requires clarity."

For several months after the Massachusetts court decision, evangelical leaders lamented the lack of a popular outcry. That changed July 14, when the Senate rejected the federal marriage amendment. Media reports described the vote as "a big election-year defeat" for the White House. It was, in fact, an election-year bonanza.

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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Backers of the amendment clogged the Senate switchboard with calls. Perhaps most important, social conservatives shifted their focus to amending state constitutions. They launched petition drives to put amendments banning same-sex marriage to a popular vote, and those drives resulted in grass-roots organizations and voter lists that later fed the Bush campaign.

Ultimately, 13 states approved marriage amendments this year, including 11 on Nov. 2.

Some Democrats suspected that the ballot initiatives were engineered by Rove and the GOP, but religious activists say otherwise. In Michigan, state Sen. Alan Cropsey (R) introduced a bill to ban same-sex marriage in October 2003 and assumed it would have the support of his party. Instead, the Roman Catholic Church in Michigan became the amendment's main booster, spending nearly $1 million to secure its passage.

"I couldn't say anything publicly, because I would have been blasted for it, but the Republican Party was not helpful at all," Cropsey said. "It's not like they were the instigators. They were the Johnny-come-latelies, if anything."

Michael Howden, executive director of Stronger Families for Oregon, said it was a similar situation in his state. "There's been no contact whatsoever, no coordinating, no pushing" by anyone at the White House or in the Bush campaign, he said.

Charles W. Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, recalled a meeting early this year when Christian leaders warned White House aides that the marriage issue was likely to appear on state ballots and be a factor in the presidential election. "The White House guys were kind of resisting it on the grounds that 'We haven't decided what position we want to take on that,' " he said.

The Enlistment of Religious Leaders

According to religious leaders, the conference calls with White House officials started early in the Bush administration and became a weekly ritual as the campaign heated up. Usually, the participants were Rove or Tim Goeglein, head of the White House Office of Public Liaison. Later, Bush campaign chairman Ken Mehlman and Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and the campaign's southeast regional coordinator, were often on the line.

The religious leaders varied, but frequent participants included the Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, psychologist James C. Dobson or others from the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, and Colson.

"They did an extremely discreet job," Colson said. "It wasn't like: 'Do this. Contact these voters.' It was: 'Here's what's going on in the campaign.' It was just keeping people informed, and that's all they had to do. It was respectful of the fact that you're talking to religious leaders who are individuals, who should not be in the hip pocket of any political party."

The Bush campaign enlisted thousands of religious "team leaders" in its canvassing efforts. According to activists in battleground states, however, Christian groups were often out ahead of the campaign.

Gary Cass was in charge of registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in three Florida counties for Coral Ridge Ministries, the Fort Lauderdale-based broadcasting empire of the Rev. D. James Kennedy. On nights and weekends, he also volunteered for the Bush-Cheney campaign -- and found it far less organized than Coral Ridge's effort.

"I couldn't get answers. I had trouble getting a sign for my yard," he said. "It was a good thing we weren't coordinating with the Republican Party, because there wasn't anybody to cooperate with."

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