Evangelical organizers from as far away as California have been quietly mining Ohio pastors and their pews for evangelical voters, hoping to tip the election Mitt Romney’s way, just as they did for President George W. Bush in 2004.
Largely ignored by the press in the 2004 campaign, those evangelical voters became the story of that year’s election, spawning a renewed emphasis by both parties on so-called “values voters.” After a big drop in turnout in 2008, they are riding under the radar again — and Republicans say their bloc could be the deciding factor.
“In 2008, too many evangelical voters stayed home and the ‘Reagan Democrats’ stayed with Barack Obama,” said Ken Blackwell, a Republican evangelical who was the Ohio secretary of state when Mr. Bush narrowly won re-election, thanks to efforts by Mr. Blackwell and others to find and motivate Christian first-time voters in Ohio, mainly in the state’s western counties.
Mr. Blackwell predicted that evangelicals this year “will surpass their 2004 turnout for Bush, and that, coupled with the movement of Reagan Democrats away from Obama, will provide Romney a winning edge.”
In 2004, Ohio was not so much a turnout election as one marking a change in the composition of the electorate. First-time religious voters targeted by the Bush campaign also came out to vote for a state referendum against gay marriage.
This year, the election in Ohio is about reactivating evangelical and Catholic voters who were missing in 2008, religious activists in the state said.
Among the army of religious forces playing roles are David Lane’s Los Angeles-based Pastors and Pews, Tony Perkins’ Washington-based Family Research Council, Ralph Reed’s Atlanta-based Faith and Freedom Coalition, and Phil Burres’ Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values.
Mr. Lane and his California associates have held several glitzy mass rallies for the state’s churchgoers featuring high-profile religious and political leaders. Mr. Lane and Mr. Reed each has produced a voter guide to distribute to Ohio’s faithful, Mr. Blackwell said.
Columbus-based pollster and Republican campaign strategist Brett A. Sciotto said he sees evidence of a major religious conservative push in his state.
“Direct mail, emails, a lot of folks saying their children are coming home from private Christian schools talking about voting for Romney and, of course, the evangelical organizations I am in touch with are all pushing Romney hard,” Mr. Sciotto said. “It is my sense, without any polling, that the Christian right is all in for Romney and [is] not holding back because of the Mormonism — simply because of the president’s stance on certain social issues.”
Mr. Sciotto said he isn’t sure the push “is as coordinated as it was in 2004, but it certainly seems like the noise level is about the same.”
During the Republican primary campaign, Mr. Romney fought suspicion among some evangelical voters over his Mormon religion, but many Christian leaders said that won’t dampen their turnout in the general election.
“Evangelicals will vote for a Mormon for president for the same reason that I did not object when a Muslim oncological surgeon recently performed surgery on my wife,” said Jim Garlow, pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego and an ally of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “I did not ask about the surgeon’s religious faith. Rather, I wanted to know if he was a skilled surgeon and understood medical issues. He did.
“Evangelicals view Romney in the same way and will vote for him in high percentages because he will lead this nation based on the right principles,” Mr. Garlow said.
Anecdotal evidence supports Mr. Garlow’s contention, but it also is true that concerns linger among some born-again Christians who think Mormonism is not a Christian religion.
Still, other evangelical organizers were skeptical of Mr. Romney’s efforts and said that any Election Day surge will be despite, not because of, the campaign. They say his tightly knit Boston headquarters hasn’t lifted a finger to win over evangelicals in Ohio or anywhere else.
Historian Doug Wead, an influential evangelical in the Reagan White House, said it’s not the born-again Christians’ attitude toward a Mormon candidate “but this candidate’s attitude toward them” that poses a problem.
Evangelicals resent the fact that many of the top people allied with Mr. Romney are hostile to evangelicals in politics, Mr. Wead said.
“If Romney wins, it will be because of the economy. If he loses, it will not be because he is a Mormon and because evangelicals hesitated to vote for him,” Mr. Wead said. “It will be because he made no effort whatsoever to reach out to them. It was one of the worst efforts ever. It’s not that the Romney campaign made mistakes like John McCain’s 2008 missteps, but that Romney and his people did nothing to reach out to evangelicals.”
He said some evangelicals will stay home on Election Day.
Mr. Blackwell said that leaving the outreach to local organizers was the right call for the Romney campaign.
“His people in Boston have not tried to tell us what to do in our own state,” Mr. Blackwell said. “They have gotten out of the way and let us organize evangelicals and Catholics in Ohio our way.”
Mr. Wead said some evangelicals will find it difficult to forgive Mr. Romney and his aides for what Mr. Wead called the “GOP gang rape of” Rep. W. Todd Akin of Missouri, an evangelical and tea party favorite who in his U.S. Senate campaign said women’s bodies have ways of rejecting pregnancies that result from “legitimate rape.”
Mr. Romney criticized Mr. Akin’s remarks, but Romney allies went further, Mr. Wead said, noting that Republican strategist Karl Rove told GOP insiders, “We should sink Todd Akin. If he’s found mysteriously murdered, don’t look for my whereabouts.”
Mr. Blackwell said Mr. Obama’s “attacks on religious liberty,” such as his health care mandate requiring religious schools and charities to pay for contraception they morally oppose, has antagonized Catholic bishops and their congregants.
“That has also put what we used to call the ‘Reagan Democrats’ into play,” Mr. Blackwell said, adding that this issue should offset the lack of the gay marriage ballot question that helped drive evangelical and conservative Catholic turnout in 2004.