Tuesday, June 22, 2004

A new independent-expenditure group, backed by the John Templeton Foundation, is targeting what political analysts regard as President Bush’s electoral ace in the hole — religious conservative voters.

Let Freedom Ring Inc. will seek contributions to help “counter the millions of dollars being spent to attack and discredit President Bush by leftist organizations such as those supported by billionaire George Soros, Hollywood liberals and others,” said Colin A. Hanna, the new group’s president.

His organization has $1 million in start-up money from the Templeton Foundation, whose president is retired pediatric surgeon and conservative philanthropist Dr. John M. Templeton Jr.

Mr. Hanna, a Republican and former Chester County, Pa., commissioner, says his group “will not be simply a conservative version of MoveOn.org and the Media Fund that attacks Senator Kerry the way those organizations attack President Bush.”

“Instead, we will reach out to patriotic Americans, especially people of faith, and encourage them not to let these mudslingers turn them off to our political process,” he says.

Some Republican political strategists have estimated that in 2000, from 4 million to 6 million frequent churchgoers did not show up at the polls on Election Day.

A number of postelection surveys suggest that religious-conservative vote as a proportion of the total vote declined in 2000 versus 1996 — for example, by as much as seven percentage points in Pennsylvania and three points in Michigan. Mr. Bush, who had the overwhelming backing of frequent churchgoers who did vote, narrowly lost both swing states.

Bush strategists hope that recapturing that lost evangelical vote and even expanding on it, especially in the battleground states, could spell success for Mr. Bush over Democrat John Kerry on Nov. 2.

“Religious conservatives are a unique kind of ‘swing voter,’ ” Mr. Hanna said. “They don’t swing between Bush and Kerry, but between Bush and not voting.”

However, the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, criticized Let Freedom Ring as an attempt to inject religion into politics.

“Some forces want the presidential race to wind up in a round of Bible ‘Jeopardy’ in late October,” Mr. Lynn said. “And this is one more massively funded effort to achieve [Bush strategist] Karl Rove’s stated goal of getting 3 [million] to 4 million more Christian evangelical voters to the polls.”

Evangelical Christians make up 7 percent of the population and 86 percent of them expect to vote for Mr. Bush this time, according to a survey last month of 1,260 registered voters by the independent, California-based Barna Research Group.

The study reports that 88 percent of evangelicals are likely to vote, making them the religious group with the greatest voting propensity. They also are “the population segment most supportive of the president’s performance in office — 89 percent give him a favorable evaluation,” according to the survey.

Most independent-expenditure groups using soft, federally unregulated donations this year have chartered themselves as “527s,” an IRS designation for a nonprofit group that cannot coordinate its advertising and get-out-the-vote activities with any candidate or political party.

These groups can devote all their contributions to political activities, but must report the names of their donors to the Federal Election Commission — something many wealthy individual and corporate donors are reluctant to do.

Let Freedom Ring, however, has formed itself as a 501c4, a nonprofit IRS designation for a group that can spend up to 49 percent of its donations on political activity, but does not have to publicly disclose donor names. The same restrictions on coordinating with candidates or parties for 527s apply.

Mr. Hanna said Let Freedom Ring will pay for TV commercials, videos, documentaries, Web campaigns, voter-registration drives and activist mobilization.

“We want to reinforce traditional values and inspire a new generation of Americans to participate actively in our political process,” he said.

Postelection data since 1980 suggest the increasingly important role religion has played for Republicans — which have been billing themselves as backing traditional values.

In the 1992 congressional elections, for example, exit polling by Voter News Service suggested that frequent churchgoers preferred Republican to Democratic candidates for the U.S. House 53 percent to 47 percent. By 2002, the Republican advantage with such voters had grown to a 20 percentage-point gap, with frequent churchgoers voting for Republican House candidates by 60 percent to 40 percent for the Democratic opponents.

In 2000, Mr. Bush won 87 percent of white voters who described themselves as frequent churchgoers, a group “which now represents the heart of the Republican coalition,” according to John C. Green, the director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, and Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center at Trinity College.

“With non-Catholic Christians, Bush’s [vote] performance ranged from 61 percent of frequent-attending white Protestants to 51 percent of less-attending white Protestants,” the two men reported.

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