This piece originally ran at New York Daily News online:
In the 2004 election, the pattern of religious voters supporting George W. Bush and secular voters backing John Kerry was so stark that it introduced a new term to the political lexicon: the God Gap. Exit polls showed that the single best predictor of whether a voter supported Bush or Kerry wasn’t gender, income level or union membership – it was how often that person went to church.
Four years later, a much different God Gap has emerged: between religious conservatives and the secular establishment of the Republican Party. It was the marriage of those two constituencies – so-called country club Republicans and more down-market churchgoers – that fueled a remarkable 25-year Republican ascent, from Ronald Reagan to 1994′s Republican Revolution to George W. Bush.
Today, the unraveling of the alliance is raising questions about the party’s ability to win the White House again.
Nothing has pointed up the rift as dramatically as Sarah Palin. It wasn’t until John McCain unveiled his vice presidential pick that religious conservatives – excited by Palin’s staunch anti-abortion views, her personal decision to forego an abortion and give birth to a son with Down syndrome, and her background in conservative Christian churches – finally rallied to his side.
“I’m surprised and thrilled,” Family Research Council Action political chief Connie Mackey, who’d previously been critical of McCain, told me on the day of the Palin announcement. “You know how politics works – you don’t usually get it all.”
Across the country, in-the-pews religious conservatives were similarly moved. A Pew poll found that weekly white Catholic churchgoers, who’d been about evenly split between McCain and Barack Obama before the Palin pick, got squarely behind McCain after. The same poll showed that 71% of white evangelicals favored McCain after Palin joined his ticket, up from 61% before. A whopping 78% of white evangelicals had a favorable view of Palin in September, compared to 52% of the electorate at large.
And yet in the weeks since, as many of these constituencies have maintained their enthusiasm for the ticket, Palin has provoked a remarkable string of denouncements and defections from leading lights of the Republican establishment, from George Will to Peggy Noonan to David Frum to Colin Powell.
It’s not that those Republicans oppose Palin because of her conservative, faith-based views on issues like abortion, though Powell did bemoan the “rightward shift” that she represented. Rather, the party’s moderate, secular establishment is unmoved by the faith-based bond that religious conservatives feel with her. And they fear that McCain picked Palin to reap the electoral benefits of that bond, ignoring her lack of experience and other political liabilities.
It’s an attitude that strikes many religious conservatives as elitist. “There are some who’ve spoken condescendingly and forgotten about the influence of social conservatives and their role in the party,” Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Council (a conservative Christian legal group) and a zealous Palin supporter, told me. “Fiscal conservatives need to understand that social conservatives are right there with them and need to embrace them as allies.”
The Republican rift over Palin is hardly the first sign that the party’s religious and establishment wings are drifting further apart. President Bush’s 2005 nomination of evangelical White House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court thrilled the Christian Right – Focus on the Family’s James Dobson devoted a handful of his radio shows to promoting her – before many of the same establishment figures now lamenting Palin torpedoed Miers’ nomination.
The rift emerged again in this year’s Republican primaries. The bulk of the party’s evangelicals supported Mike Huckabee, giving him victories in Iowa and five Southern states, while the establishment went first for Romney and Giuliani, then McCain. There was no Bush- or Reagan-like figure who united the two camps. Romney tried but failed.
Until the GOP finds another national candidate who can excite religious conservatives and mainstream Republicans, the road to the White House will be a steep uphill climb.
In the meantime, the McCain-Palin ticket has come to embody a house divided, with McCain speaking to more secular Republicans and Palin tending to the religious base. This week, while McCain campaigned in swing states like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, Palin was in the capital of evangelical America, Colorado Springs, talking on James Dobson’s radio program about the opposition she’s facing because of her faith-based politics.
Palin had a point. But the opposition that she, McCain, and the GOP have to worry about isn’t coming from liberals and the mainstream media, as she and Dobson suggested on air. It’s coming from their own party.