Vice President 2008 – The Religion Factor & Political Perceptions

Vice President 2008 – The Religion Factor & Political Perceptions
August 5, 2008

Steven Waldman is president and editor-in-chief of, and author of Founding Faith. Previously the national editor of U.S. News & World Report, he is a recognized expert on religion, social issues and politics. Click here for Waldman’s full bio.

Here is a guide to the religion factor in the vice presidential selection:

John McCain

John McCain

John McCain – John McCain is now earning less support from white evangelicals – by about eight percentage points – than George Bush had at this point in the campaign. While they’re avoiding McCain, they haven’t yet signed on with Obama. So, McCain can, and must, get some of those evangelicals back. He’s also in a tough battle with Obama over Catholic voters, again doing a bit worse than Bush had.

The most commonly cited choices for Vice President By John McCain are:

Mitt Romney – Though he might help McCain with money and Michigan (where he grew up), choosing Romney might make winning evangelicals harder. Mormonism is still viewed as a cult by a meaningful number of evangelicals, and, ironically, Romney exacerbated the problem when he tried to cast himself as a Good Christian. He is also viewed as recent and possibly insincere convert on abortion. On the other hand, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada – newfangled battlegrounds — all have large Mormon populations, and other evangelicals seemed quite fond of him during the primaries.

Mike Huckabee – No one would make white evangelicals happier. The former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher is popular with rank and file conservative Christians (though less so among evangelical leaders). A recent Zogby poll reported that Huckabee would help McCain with this group more than any other candidate. The problem is: he’s intensely disliked by economic conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Tim Pawlenty — If McCain wants to appeal to evangelicals sans the potential baggage of Huckabee, he may turn to Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. He belongs to the church whose pastor is the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, and his wife is an outspoken born-again Christian. (“I have an incredible feeling that God has trusted me to do this job.”)

Charlie Crist – The governor of Florida helped McCain win the crucial Florida primary but is unpopular with religious conservatives. Though he’s pro-life and against gay marriage, he supported civil unions for gays, suggested the state shouldn’t spend more money on trying to ban gay marriage and rankled conservatives with an aggressive platform of government intervention on the environment. He recently became engaged to a woman but for most of the last 30 years he’s been a bachelor, prompting questions throughout his career about whether he’s gay. He says he’s not, but the issue may still be a concern to religious conservatives.

Joseph Lieberman – If McCain want to buff up his maverick credentials by picking a non-Republican, Lieberman is a leading possibility. The Democrat-turned-independent might help marginally with Jews (though he’s quite a polarizing figure in the community now) and might help McCain win Florida (though he wasn’t able to do that for Al Gore). Religious conservatives would be conflicted: They generally have loved Lieberman for his religiosity and strong support of Israel, but he is pro-choice, which is pretty much a litmus test for a Republican vice presidential candidate.

Eric Cantor – If McCain wants a Jewish running mate who isn’t pro-choice on abortion, then he might select Rep. Eric Cantor. The 45-year-old congressman from Virginia jumped onto VP lists after it was confirmed that the McCain campaign had asked him for personal information. Advantages over Lieberman: pro-life, young, Republican and from a battleground state.

Bobby Jindal – A conservative Catholic convert (from Hinduism), the Louisiana governor is popular among conservative intelligentsia and would likely excite both evangelicals and Catholics. Liberals were relishing poking him for a participation in an exorcism but his devout faith has mostly won him fans. However, the 37-year-old recently pulled himself out of the running, citing his commitment to governing Louisiana.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

Barack Obama – Obama is trying to get moderate and liberal evangelicals to switch sides. More important, he is trying to win centrist Catholics, and appears to be doing a bit better with that group than John Kerry had. That’s why quite a number of his rumored VP picks are Catholic.

The most commonly cited choices for Vice President By Barack Obama are:

Tim Kaine – Besides helping with a battleground state, some Democrats argue that the Virginia governor has showed a real talent for connecting with religious voters. Attacked for being soft on crime because he opposed the death penalty, he did some faith-based jujitsu: he declared that his Roman Catholic faith taught him to treasure life, turning his position from being Soft on Crime to being Strong on Faith. However, his views on abortion – personally opposed but supporting of freedom of choice – have drawn attacks from the Catholic Church. As John Kerry can attest, Catholics who are pro-choice will find themselves attacked for being bad Catholics.

Evan Bayh – A pro-choice Episcopalian, Bayh is viewed in general as a centrist, having won election four times from Indiana, a culturally conservative state. The Indiana senator would do little to win over either evangelicals or Catholics on faith-based issues, but he oozes moderation, which might help some centrist Christians get more comfortable with Obama. On the other hand, conservative Catholics resented the way Bayh questioned the personal views of John Roberts during the Supreme Court confirmation for Chief Justice, calling it anti-Catholic.

Kathleen Sebelius – Like Kaine, the governor of Kansas is a pro-choice Catholic, and worse, has had a stormy relationship with her own bishop who suggested she be denied communion. She has maintained that her faith is a private matter, a position that didn’t work for John Kerry.

Joseph Biden – He may have assets that Kaine and Sebelius don’t have – especially strength on foreign policy. The Delaware senator shares their murky status as pro-choice Catholics but may be the most anti-abortion of the pro-choice catholics: He has supported ban on partial birth abortions, opposes government funding for abortion and got only a 36% rating from the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Hillary Clinton – Ironically, this Methodist might be the strongest candidate for appealing to Catholics. She’s pro-choice but unlike pro-choice Catholics she won’t draw the special ire of Bishops claiming she’s a bad Catholic. And during the primaries she performed well with this group, not because of her position on social issues but her reputation as a fighter on economic issues. Religious disadvantage: Having two ardently pro-choice candidates may burden Obama’s efforts to reach young evangelicals.

All in all, each would-be vice president helps the nominee with some part of his strategy but none pushes all the buttons. McCain and Obama will have to delicately balance different constituencies – another reason the vice presidential selection will tell us a great deal about the nominee’s style and political strategy for the homestretch.


%d bloggers like this: