(3 of 5)
THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEFEAT
There was a certain purity to John Kerry's failure in 2004: when it came to religious voters, as the saying goes, he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Mara Vanderslice would know, since she was the person nominally in charge of shaping his religious identity. Vanderslice, who just turned 32, is a secret agent of sorts who grew up in a Unitarian Democratic household in Boulder, Colo., where she was raised to believe that Christians tended to be Republicans and vice versa. She went off to Earlham College in Indiana, an earnest Quaker school with a dry campus where students took themselves and their role in the world seriously. A semester abroad in Central America launched her on a spiritual journey, which led to her baptism by full immersion in a Potomac tributary. Helping the least, the lost and the last, however, wasn't exactly the G.O.P. platform at the time. "I never understood," she says, "how the Gospel made people Republicans."
But soon she got a glimpse of the answer.
Vanderslice arrived in Iowa in December 2003 to work on religious outreach for Howard Dean's presidential campaign. The job was something of a contradiction in terms. Dean, who had left his Episcopal church over an argument concerning the placement of a bike path, often argued that campaigns should avoid subjects like "guns, God and gays" and boasted that "my religion doesn't inform my public policy." Vanderslice found herself working with advisers who wondered what she was doing there and a candidate who rarely mentioned religious groups except to attack them. "Those voters were a target," she recalled of Evangelicals, "not a target audience."
The reception warmed only slightly when she graduated to the Kerry campaign. "I got my first insight into how behind the Democrats were," she recalls. Not long after she joined the campaign, a handful of Catholic bishops who denounced Kerry's position on abortion publicly suggested that he should be denied Communion. Vanderslice's recommendations that it would be a good idea to return calls from Christianity Today or accept an invitation to speak at John Carroll University were all shot down. But in the final stretch of the campaign, she was dispatched to Michigan, a state whose Catholic voters had longed to meet a Democrat they could talk to. In her first week alone, 72 people walked in the door and volunteered to help. Soon she had nuns doing phone banks, talking about the religious resonances of Kerry's positions. In the end, of course, Kerry lost the race. But he did 15 percentage points better with weekly churchgoing Catholics in Michigan than he did in other states.
Stunned by the results, Democratic leaders launched polls and focus groups and strategy sessions. At the Democratic headquarters, even Dean, now chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), was getting into the spirit. He had seen the Democrats' share of the evangelical vote drop from 33%, when Bill Clinton ran, to 17% for Kerry. Dean's aides began asking state party chairs, Do you talk to religious press? Do you know any religious leaders, even? Ever think to organize them? The response came back, Well, no, not really. Like the national party, most local Democrats had always done their outreach to various constituencies in silos veterans on one set of issues, African Americans on another, women on another and so forth. There was never any common language of faith to appeal to those voters. "We walked away from the single institution most Americans turned to when they try to be better than they are," admits Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "It was a huge mistake."