Blessed Reassurance

How Obama can lessen the intensity of the opposition.

Sen. Barack Obama

Four years ago, after Sen. John Kerry effectively clinched the Democratic nomination, I wondered aloud—the most effective way to communicate on television—whether he would reach out to the white evangelical community. Suppose he asked to address a convention, openly acknowledging the likelihood that he’d receive few of the votes of the assembled faithful but talking about finding common ground on issues like poverty, AIDS, and human rights?

This never happened, of course, and that November, evangelicals voted for President Bush by a 78-21 margin. More important, the outpouring of faith-based voters almost surely tipped Ohio, and thus the election, into the Bush column. Would a speech, or a series of conversations between Kerry and white evangelicals, have made a difference? It’s not clear: A gay-marriage ban was on the Ohio ballot that year, and that helped turn out these voters in force. Nor is it clear that John Kerry would have been convincing had he talked about his faith.

What is clear is that Barack Obama is pursuing a course radically different from Kerry’s—or, for that matter, Al Gore’s. (Gore lost the white evangelical vote by a 68-30 margin.) And therein lies a tale about one of the least appreciated but most effective of political techniques: the art not so much of winning over voters as of lessening the intensity of their opposition.

Earlier this month, Sen. Obama met privately with some 30 religious leaders for a no-holds-barred conversation. Participants were Catholic and Protestant, mainline and evangelical, black, white, and Hispanic. Franklin Graham was there. (He’s Billy’s son and now heads this father’s ministry.) So was T.D. Jakes, the African-American pastor at a Dallas megachurch, and Doug Kmiec, a prominent conservative Catholic scholar who has endorsed Obama (and who contributes to Slate’s legal blog, “Convictions“).

How did the meeting go? Here’s what Steve Strang, a former Mike Huckabee and current John McCain supporter, wrote in describing Obama’s answer to a question on abortion: “The time he took to answer was probably 15 minutes. He came across as thoughtful and much more of a ‘centrist’ than what I would have expected. He did not appear to be the crazy leftist that is being supported by George Soros and his radical leftist friends. Sen. Obama looked me in the eye as he answered my question, almost as if it were a one-on-one interview.”

Will Strang vote for Obama? Almost certainly not. But will he regard an Obama presidency as a mortal threat to his most deeply held beliefs? Almost certainly not. Strang reflects the same attitude that Stephen Mansfield presents in his forthcoming book, The Faith of Barack Obama. Mansfield, who has published a similar book about President Bush, writes: “Obama’s faith infuses his public policy, so that his faith is not just limited to the personal realms of his life, it also informs his leadership.” Mansfield can’t bring himself to support Obama because the candidate is pro-choice, but it hardly sounds as if Mansfield will be trying to shepherd hordes of voters to the polls on Election Day to defeat him.

And that’s the point. Sometimes, the most effective approach for a candidate is to lower the temperature of the opposition—to say, in effect, “OK, don’t vote for me; but you have nothing to fear from me.” In other words, to reassure them that you’re not so bad.

We’ve seen this tactic deployed repeatedly in presidential campaigns. When John F. Kennedy spoke to the Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, he knew he would win few of the votes in the room. But his campaign also knew that opposition to a Catholic president was a mortal threat to victory; just a few days earlier, prominent Protestants, including the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, had openly announced their intention to oppose JFK on religious grounds and to stop him. So when Kennedy spoke in near-absolute terms about a wall of separation between church and state, he sought to ease fears rather than to persuade his audience to support him.

When Ronald Reagan campaigned in the South Bronx in 1980 and spoke to the Urban League about liberal programs’ failure to combat endemic poverty, he wasn’t really trying to win black votes. Instead, as one of his advisers told the New York Times, “Mr. Reagan’s efforts yesterday could help in his continuing attempt to widen his appeal among other segments of the electorate, such as liberal and moderate suburban Republicans”—even if they yielded few black supporters. Similarly, George W. Bush’s frequent campaign stops in 2000 at venues for minority voters, and his description of “compassionate conservatism” in his speech accepting the GOP nomination, were aimed squarely at middle-ground voters.

And back to the other side of the aisle: When Bill Clinton surrounded himself during 1992 campaign stops with a blue wall of police officers, the point wasn’t to win over hard-core law-and-order voters but to reassure one-time Democrats who had left the party because of issues like rising crime that this was one Democratic politician who understood their fears. (Clinton also flew back to Arkansas midcampaign to preside over the execution of a mentally impaired murderer.)

Such tactics are very different from the familiar efforts to cross-pressure voters. As described by D. Sunshine Hillygus and Todd G. Shields in their book The Persuadable Voter, cross-pressuring attempts to wrest voters from their usual partisan loyalties by stressing policies that might lead them to the other party—for instance, luring working-class whites to the GOP with abortion restrictions or wooing moderate Republicans to the Democratic side by preaching the value of stem-cell research.

The reassurance strategy, by contrast, takes the opposition as a given and then tries to lower its intensity. To oppose a candidate, after all, isn’t the same as actually giving money or pulling the lever for the other guy. White evangelicals in Ohio may well support John McCain by margins of 2-1—but if they’re not out on Election Day with car pools and massive door-to-door vote pulling, that’s a major victory for Obama.

And this may explain why James Dobson, the head of the Christian group Focus on the Family and one of the most influential voices in the evangelical community, took to the airwaves this week to denounce Obama for his “fruitcake” interpretation of the Constitution. If Obama succeeds in providing blessed reassurance to the white evangelicals, he’ll significantly neutralize a major weapon in the Republican arsenal.