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Jacques Berlinerblau Jacques Berlinerblau is an Associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the School of Foreign Service. Berlinerblau has published on a wide variety of issues ranging...

A collaboration with Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive's On Faith site, The God Vote explores the role of faith in this year's election. It is featured here as well as on Georgetown/On Faith.

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>> more

How Obama Did It: The Ground Game

November 4, 2008

Now that Barack Obama is president-elect we have to figure out how issues pertaining to religion contributed to his victory. I will get to the exit-poll data tomorrow, but tonight I want to float the following theory: On the Faith and Values front Obama won this election, in part, because he avoided all the errors made by the Kerry campaign in 2004.

Not "an Evangelical's worst nightmare": Unlike Kerry, who scared the bejesus out of many conservative Christians, Obama gave them no salient reason to loathe him. He was a proud servant of Christ. He had no problem giving a shout out to Jesus. He could thump Bible with the best of them. And--this is very important--he did not give off the dreaded "Petrus-sipping secularist" vibe that always seemed emblazoned across Kerry's forehead (Readers, I am taking bets: how many times do you think the president-elect mentioned the phrase "Separation of Church and State" in nearly two years of campaigning?).

Sure, Obama was pro-Choice. But he was pro-Choice in that pained, every-abortion-is-a-tragedy sort of way that the Democrats have found so rhetorically effective of late. This doesn't mean, of course, that Evangelicals would vote for him (the majority did not, though as we shall probably see tomorrow he made small but significant gains). But it does mean that Obama avoided having one quarter of the American electorate passionately campaigning against him. This was a luxury that John Kerry did not have.

No Catholic meltdown: Obama's selection of pro-Choice running mate Joseph Biden did not, as I had predicted, trigger a spate of "communion-denial stories." The Democratic ticket was able to avoid countless, TV-reporter-standing-in-front-of St.-Mary's-Church-asking-parishioners-about-the-Bishop's-excoriation-of-Kerry stories which were a quotidian occurrence in 2004. How did they avoid that catastrophe ?

The ground game, silent but deadly: They avoided that catastrophe by methodically and expertly developing dense networks of surrogates and influential supporters in Catholic communities (and other communities). So, whenever a potential crisis emerged, Obama had scads of well-connected Catholic movers and shakers mobilized and ready to defend him. For example, every time, a conservative Catholic leader would criticize the Democratic ticket, a 527 group called Catholics United would swing into action with emails and media broadsides geared towards pushing back.

Another example: For months I have been hearing about religiously themed "house parties" in which a religious leader in the community who supports Obama gathers locals together at someone's house to talk God and Obama. I had the darnedest time finding out about these parties in some official capacity (try Googling it and see what you get). But I spoke to dozens of people who attended them and apparently the guests had themselves some 'dip, a whole lot of fun, and oodles of pro-Obama banter. They could have been playing Twister for all I know, but it worked.

All sorts of different faith communities were targeted for these events. Therefore, I am starting to think that the single biggest F and V story of 2008 occurred underneath the Culture War radar screen. It had to do with the ability of the Obama team to line up religious leaders on the grassroots level as a means of, 1) gaining votes, and, 2) neutralizing potential faith-based threats to his candidacy.

So the narrative that emerges is of a candidate who spoke about religion enthusiastically, but not excessively in public. But on the less manifest level, there was a lot of community organizing afoot (thus answering the question asked at the Republican National Convention as to what that particular vocation entails). This out-of-sight, local, religiously based outreach is the most devastating innovation of Faith and Values technology since candidates started saying "May God Bless America."

A little luck: Reverend Wright and the cunning of history: John Kerry was singularly unlucky in 2004 (think of Osama Bin Laden videotaping a commercial for George Bush). Not so Obama. His association with Reverend Wright could have been a world-historical game changer and candidacy wrecker. But it wasn't. True, luck is the residue of design. But man was Obama lucky!

A few months back I discussed the theory that had the Clinton campaign played the Wright Card before the Iowa primary it would have changed everything. But for some reason they didn't. During the long summer months McCain could have invoked Wright. But he never did that. That was probably because his own courtship of Pastors Hagee and Parsley had cancelled out Obama's pastor disaster. And in the aftermath of the market meltdowns, as he was losing control of everything but the Conservative Evangelical base, McCain could have looked to Trinity United Church of Christ for inspiration. But he didn't do that either.

Only in the last few days did expenditure groups start running Wright attack ads in swing states. The website gawker.com makes the good (and extremely funny) point that the only ostensible purpose and effect of these eleventh-hour advertisements was to "annoy the hell out of Democrats while they [were] trying to watch their liberal shows."

So congratulations to President-elect Obama who learned from Kerry's mistakes. And since we have been speaking about religion, let me remind him that we Americans are going to need something akin to a Messiah to get out of the mess we are in. Tomorrow, we look at the numbers (and stay tuned for some special features).