Barna, the pre-eminent pollers of religion-related issues, says the landscape is changing:
The Christian community in the U.S. has largely shifted its loyalty to the Democratic nominee in this year’s race. In the 2004 election, 81% of evangelicals voted for the Republican incumbent George W. Bush. Currently, 78% of the likely voters who are evangelical expect to vote for Sen. McCain. Evangelicals represent 8% of the adult population and just 9% of all likely voters.
But the big news in the faith realm is the sizeable defection from Republican circles of the much larger non-evangelical born again and the notional Christian segments. The non-evangelical born again adults constitute 37% of the likely voters in November, and the notional Christians are expected to be 39% of the likely voters. Among the non-evangelical born again adults, 52% supported President Bush in 2004; yet, only 38% are currently supporting Sen. McCain, while 48% are siding with Sen. Obama. Although notional Christians voted for John Kerry in 2004 by an 11-point margin, that gap has more than doubled to 26 points in this year’s election. Protestants and Catholics have moved toward the Democratic challenger in equal proportions since 2004.
The New York Times today notes that evangelical support for McCain is soft at best:
…what remains one of Mr. McCain’s biggest challenges as he faces a general election contest with Senator Barack Obama: a continued wariness toward him among evangelicals and other Christian conservatives, a critical voting bloc for Republicans that could stay home in the fall or at least be decidedly unenthusiastic in their efforts to get out the vote.
And why are they not gung-ho for McCain?
Mr. McCain’s relationship with evangelicals has long been troubled. In 2000, when he was running against Mr. Bush for the Republican nomination, Mr. McCain castigated Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance.”
In a sign of the lingering distrust, Mr. McCain finished last out of nine Republican candidates in a straw poll last year at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, a gathering for socially conservative activists.
James C. Dobson, the influential founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family, released a statement in February, when Mr. McCain was on the verge of securing the Republican nomination, affirming that he would not vote for Mr. McCain and would instead stay home if he became the nominee. Dr. Dobson later softened his stance and said he would vote but has remained critical of Mr. McCain.
“For John McCain to be competitive, he has to connect with the base to the point that they’re intense enough that they’re contagious,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “Right now they’re not even coughing.”
The balancing act Mr. McCain faces in appealing to both moderate voters and evangelicals was starkly illustrated last month when he rejected the endorsements of the Rev. John Hagee and the Rev. Rod Parsley, prominent evangelical leaders, after controversial statements by the two came to light. Mr. Parsley has been vocally anti-Islam and Mr. Hagee, in a sermon, said Hitler and the Holocaust had been part of God’s plan to drive the Jews to Palestine.
Mr. McCain’s actions complicated his relationship with evangelical leaders, some of whom said in interviews that the senator’s actions contributed to the impression among some evangelicals that he did not know or understand them. They argued that he should have stood by them, while making clear that he did not necessarily agree with all of their views.
He also supported financing for embryonic stem cell research.
Robert Novak jusmps in the fray:
Shortcomings by John McCain’s campaign in the art of politics are alienating two organizations of Christian conservatives. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family is estranged following the failure of Dobson and McCain to talk out their differences. Evangelicals who follow the Rev. John Hagee resent McCain’s disavowal of him.
The evangelicals are not an isolated problem for the Arizona senator. Enthusiasm for McCain inside the Republican coalition is in short supply. During the four months since McCain clinched the nomination, he has not satisfied conservatives opposed to his positions on global warming, campaign finance reform, immigration, domestic oil drilling and how to ban same-sex marriages.
The particular problem for McCain is that if he moves to the right to pick up the "base", he’ll not only be seen as pandering (and a flip-flopper), but he’s likely to lose people in the center.
I don’t envy his position, but I’m glad he’s in it.