OKLAHOMA CITY -- On the night that former television evangelist Pat Robertson finished fifth in the New Hampshire primary, his supporters here were taking over the Republican Party in Precinct 171 of Oklahoma House District 89 -- a microcosmic political jurisdiction composed of about one square mile of wood-framed, working-class houses near Will Rogers Airport on the city's southwest side.
Time will tell which event was more important. There is no doubt which was more revealing. For anyone seeking answers to the essential questions of the Robertson phenomenon -- Who are his people? What motivates them? Have they transformed an ideological movement into a political machine? -- Precinct 171 and others like it are sociopolitical laboratories.
Tommy Garrett, state political director of the Robertson campaign, talked about his grass roots organization in the lexicon of a big-city machine boss, describing the precinct leaders as "old-fashioned ward heelers." Hubert Morken, a political science professor at Oral Roberts University, who is researching a book on Robertson's constituency, said the machine metaphor is inappropriate because this campaign is fueled by volunteers. He said a better comparison is with George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972.
It is not irrelevant that both analogies are based on widely divergent Democratic Party models. Many of the precinct captains in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, the panhandle and southern Oklahoma's "Little Dixie" are recent converts from the Democratic Party. They include a 99-year-old woman in the town of Buffalo who had never voted for a Republican in her life until Robertson, and another woman in Oklahoma City who 12 years ago was a Carter delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
Although Oklahoma has a closed primary -- Democrats who failed to reregister as Republicans will not be able to cross over and vote for Robertson -- he still has a chance of winning here on March 8, "Super Tuesday." Whatever the results, the outcome in a basic sense already has been decided. Veteran Republicans acknowledge that the new recruits -- who flooded the precinct caucuses on Feb. 16 and virtually took over the state party -- have had an unprecedented impact.
What is different about Robertson that enabled him to bring out voters that earlier conservative Republicans could not?
One place to find some answers is at the home of Grady Grandstaff on SW 40th Street, where the Precinct 171 Republicans gathered for their annual caucus. Make that first annual caucus. Fifteen people showed up, including Grandstaff, his wife and their two voting-age children. That is 15 more than ever before. When Grandstaff called the county Republican Party headquarters to find out where his precinct caucus would be held, the answer he got was "nowhere" -- there had never been enough interest in his precinct to hold one.
"Then I want to hold one at my house," Grandstaff said.
"If you show up," came the sarcastic reply, "you'll probably control your precinct."
Grandstaff, a 41-year-old oilman who went bankrupt during the energy bust and is attempting a comeback with "the Lord as my drilling partner," was a registered Democrat until last year. He considered politicians "self-serving and manipulative, as bad as bankers and insurance companies." He was upset by the direction the country was heading, but felt powerless to do anything about it.
Two events transformed him. He said he was inspired by Robertson's decision to run for president, then angered by the Senate's rejection of Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork. Robertson persuaded him that evangelical Christians should get involved in the political process. The Bork defeat taught him what would happen if they did not. "That seemed so anti-American," he said. "All the special-interest groups strung him up and hanged him while we sat back and did nothing."
Now Grandstaff is consumed by politics. He volunteered to organize southwest Oklahoma County for Robertson. Precinct maps compete with oilfield charts for space on his office walls. His secretary, sister-in-law Regina McClain, heads a staff of volunteers who work six office telephones identifying the Robertson vote. They recruited so many Robertson supporters to attend precinct night caucuses that their candidate won nearly 60 pecent of the county's straw poll votes. At Grandstaff's house the tally was 13 for Robertson and one for Sen. Robert J. Dole (Kan.). One Democrat wandered in and said he wanted to switch parties to vote for Robertson.
"I am not involved just for Pat Robertson," Grandstaff said. "I'm involved for the rest of my life. We are building a core of conservative workers that will be a factor in politics for a long time beyond 1988. God told Robertson to run, but I don't know if He told him to win. My goal is not just to get Pat elected, but to fight from now on for conservative leaders who will restore morality to America."
The precinct meeting was dominated by evangelical Christians. Typical among them was Mark Vinson, 26, who registered to vote for the first time last year, as a Democrat. He changed his party registration last month when Republican registrars set up tables in the lobby of his church, Faith Tabernacle -- one of Oklahoma City's Pentecostal "super churches" with more than 3,000 members.
Vinson said he rarely watched Robertson's television programs and knew little about him. "Being Christian, I favored him," he said. His political thinking was most influenced by Tim LaHaye, president of the Washington-based American Coalition for Traditional Values. LaHaye came to the Faith Tabernacle church to hold seminars on family values. Vinson was impressed and signed up for LaHaye's "Capital Report" newsletter, and through that got into the Robertson political network. Now he is a delegate to the Oklahoma County convention March 5.
Shirley Alton will also be a delegate to the county convention. The last one she attended was held by the Democratic Party. She was the Democratic chairman of Precinct 73 in northwest Oklahoma City for 14 years, and in 1976 served as a Carter delegate to the national convention. That experience soured her on the Democrats -- she said she was upset that the delegation leaders expected her to do whatever they told her to -- but it was not until this year that she switched parties and persuaded her mother, father and three children to do the same.
Her political transformation was slow but inevitable, Alton said. Year by year through the 1960s and 1970s, she said she felt more depressed and defeated by events: legalized abortion, no prayer in the schools, violence on TV and in the streets. "As I began to see these things happen, whether it sounds melodramatic or not, the only way I can describe it is to say that my heart ached when I saw these things. Now I look at a country that is so wrong, and, oh, it hurts."
The sense that America is on a dangerous course, that there are horrible problems on the horizon, is a consistent theme among Robertson's people, and is the main reason they say they will remain active in politics regardless of the 1988 election results. Morken, the Oral Roberts professor, said many of the people he has interviewed use a Biblical metaphor to describe their concern: "Sowing to the wind and reaping the whirlwind."
"This means that certain actions will have consequences far out of proportion to the initial action," he said. "To translate it into specifics, what is violence on TV going to produce over time? If you look at the crime wave that swept through the nation since the 1960s, it was out of proportion to anything we expected, but a religious person could have predicted it. Sowing to the wind and reaping the whirlwind. My view is that Robertson people are responding to that. They see now that what happens is not an accident, but a consequence of choices made."
That fear for the country's future helps explain why Robertson is more attractive to them than Bush. "Right now, these people think decency alone doesn't cut it," said Morken, who calls himself a Robertson sympathizer. "If decency cut it, most of them would vote for Bush. They have a sense that he's a guy who would get out of his limousine in a rainstorm to help the chauffeur change the tires. But the general perspective is these are uncommon, troubled times that require more."
Morken's analysis reflected the views of Robertson supporters interviewed at Tulsa's Precinct 166, an upper-middle class section on the city's south side. "I have a sense that George Bush is a wonderful man, a wonderful family man," said Ruth E. Darr. "But I wouldn't feel comfortable with him as a leader. Robertson's Christian background is a stabilizing force. Bush seems unsure about things, like he could be swayed. Pat has a solid foundation; he will not be swayed."
The Precinct 166 party chairman, Bill Shepherd, who is also local president of the Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship, said he originally favored Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), but turned to Robertson because he was impressed with his business leadership abilities as president of the Christian Broadcasting Network.
"I choose candidates like I choose people to do business with," said Shepherd, president of a home marketing firm.
"Bob Dole, for instance, is very humorous, he can be entertaining, but he doesn't seem to have deep convictions, there is no sense that what he says he means right down to the bone. In business, you learn that if you deal with someone who doesn't believe in their product, in the long run they are going to let you down. Pat has an air of professionalism as a business leader that transcends politics. . . . The times are too important for someone who is cute, like Dole, or undefined, like Bush."