The Top Story: To the right, or to the middle?
The Top Story by Chris Graham
How important is John McCain’s VP selection tomorrow? It could mean everything as to whether he is able to keep white evangelicals under his tent.
“I haven’t made a decision how I’m going to vote this year. As far as McCain is concerned, there are some things that I like about him, there are some things I don’t like about him. It’s going to depend on who he picks as his VP. If he picks the wrong person, and most of the people out there, I think, would be the wrong person, I may end up voting third party. That’s a real possibility for me this year,” said Waynesboro resident and evangelical Christian Bill Dolack, echoing the sentiments of a sizable contingent of evangelical voters who have formed the base for Republican candidates in the past several presidential cycles.
And on the eve of McCain’s running-mate announcement, they continue to play that fundamental role, though it doesn’t seem a given that they will continue to do so if McCain should decide to try a reach-out to Democrats and independents by going with Connecticut Sen. Joe Liberman or former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge as his #2.
“I think it would have a pretty significant negative impact,” said Chad Nykamp, the director of marketing at the Salem Web Network, which conducted a web poll of readers of the Christian-conservative website crosswalk.com that has McCain with an 81 percent-to-5 percent advantage over Barack Obama among white evangelicals. Polling done by the Pew Research Center and CBS News has it a little closer, but not much – Pew’s most recent survey had McCain ahead among white evangelicals by a 68 percent-to-24 percent margin, and CBS had it at 58 percent to 24 percent.
Still a solid lead, no matter how hard you look at it. But again, it could be contingent upon tomorrow’s news. “John McCain has done a lot of work over the years to convince social conservatives that he’s the real deal, that in spite of not always toeing the party line, and his label as a maverick, that he is truly a pro-life, pro-marriage conservative. He’s done a lot of work to foster that image and to reassure particularly Christian conservatives,” Nykamp said. “It’s not surprising to me that there’s a large amount of distrust among religious conservatives of Barack Obama. I think the support for McCain is as much a reflection of that distrust for Obama as much as anything else. To put a pro-choice candidate in the VP slot on the Republican ticket, I think, would really destroy that trust that has been built between McCain and social conservatives,” Nykamp said.
It’s a mighty fine line that McCain is walking – this week as his Veepstakes comes to a conclusion and then through Nov. 4 as he tries to navigate what looks like the mother of all political minefields between his moderate image from his Senate days and the conservative image that he’s been trying to sell on the presidential campaign trail. “He has appeal, as has been shown time and time again, with independent voters and even some Democratic voters. He’s been a differently-oriented Republican for a long time in the views of many Americans. That helps with his crossover appeal to groups outside the Republican Party. But if he’s going to be reaching out to the right, especially to the conservative evangelicals, to shore up that base, that seriously complicates his ability to reach out to those independent and Democratic voters who might be inclined to consider his candidacy,” said Mark Rozell, a George Mason University political-science professor and evangelical and conservative politics expert.
So, which way should McCain go? Down the middle seems to be the conventional wisdom, especially given his strength among base GOP voters in the polls. The gamble is that voters like Dolack will leak, if not to Obama, which Dolack says in his case would never happen, then to a third-party candidate like Alan Keyes, or that enough of those voters just stay home on Nov. 4 that it will have the same effect as an Obama vote.
“The evangelical movement is split on this,” Dolack said. “The majority of them are saying that even though we’re not happy with McCain, we can’t afford Obama. So they’re going to hold their noses and vote for McCain. Others are saying, Well, it depends on who he picks as the VP, because that could mean something to us. And still others are saying, There’s absolutely no way. We’re not going to vote for him, period.
“I don’t believe that I vote third party that it’s a vote for Obama. It’s a vote for whoever I vote for. And should Obama get in, so be it,” Dolack said. “As an evangelical, I see John McCain making too many compromises. And if he’s elected without a strong vice president with him, it’s just more compromise. He moves the party more to the left, away from the issues that concern me the most. And that’s not a good thing, in my opinion.”