Bryan Fischer is surrounded by shiny, happy people. Rep. Paul Ryan has just finished speaking to the annual Values Voter Summit, the final pre-election conference of social conservatives. He smiled through two ineffective hecklings—Ryan is quite good at turning those into applause breaks—and got the audience cheering for Mitt Romney, for the “moral clarity” of his foreign policy, for the threatened “religious liberty” of churches.
Everybody else swooned, then filed out of the room to grab lunch. Fischer, whose American Family Association co-sponsors this event, wasn’t swooning.
“He didn’t say one single word about marriage,” says Fischer. “This is the safest environment in the United States of America to talk about marriage. I’ve got to believe that that came from on top. Marriage won 61-39 in North Carolina—in 2012! That’s in a state that President Obama won in 2008. Marriage is a winner. It’s just a mystery to me that they won’t touch this thing.”
He shrugs. “Mitt Romney should be leading by 10 or 15 points. The fact that he’s not is Mitt Romney’s problem. It’s because he’s run such a lackluster campaign that’s been so vague on ideas.”
The Values Voters Summits began in 2006, based on a simple premise: The voters who had brought the GOP to power were being disrespected. Twenty-two percent of voters had told exit pollsters that “moral values” motivated them. Democrats, engaged in their quadrennial bout of hand-wringing, agreed that social issues had befuddled the country and cost them a victory.
Fast-forward to now. President Barack Obama supports gay marriage and refuses to defend the Defense of Marriage Act. He signed a health care bill that lowers the cost of birth control coverage. He reversed the Reagan-era ban on aid to international family planning programs. He nominated and saw confirmed two pro-abortion-rights Supreme Court justices. One in five voters still think the guy’s a Muslim.*
And he’s winning. Romney-Ryan didn’t get much of a convention bounce, but the president did. New polls in swing states that Republicans cannot afford to lose—Ohio, Virginia—show the president in the lead. This wasn’t supposed to happen after Labor Day, when conservatives expected tighter voter models (the all-important “likely voters”) to show Romney ahead.
So conservatives are talking themselves into optimism. “Before you decide the election is over based on September polls,” writes Mike Huckabee in an email to supporters, “remember that coming out of the 1988 Democratic convention, Gallup showed an insurmountable 17-point lead for that great former president, Michael Dukakis.”
Walking around the conference, I heard the Tale of Dukakis again and again. But the story leaves out how George H.W. Bush’s convention came after Dukakis, and he made the most of the opportunity to erase that lead. Like every “maybe this time will be like that time” analysis, it leaves out the demographic and culture shifts that have made it easier for a Democrat to put together 270 electoral votes.
Conservatives have started to process that. “There’s a growing segment of the American population that is dependent on government funds and largesse,” says Dean Welty, an activist from Virginia. “Many of them give the Obama administration credit for that. We have the largest number of people on welfare we’ve ever had. We have the largest number of people on unemployment. It’s not good for the country, but it’s good for Obama.”
Most of the Values voters I talk to end up delivering a version of this theory. Ryan’s speech targeted Obama for “more people in poverty, and less upward mobility wherever you look.” If you’ve paid enough attention to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, you see this as intentional. The books on sale on the way into the main ballroom include Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs To Pay for the Cities.
“Forty-seven million on food stamps and the regime is advertising for more,” said Limbaugh in July. “We have 47, 48 percent who pay no income taxes. We have 3 million more off the unemployment rolls and on the disability rolls, and they all vote.” At the conference, I hear the same argument from a businessman and a self-publishing author, William Been. “When you figure that 47 million of us are receiving food stamps today—which is double the number from four years ago—that’s a way, possibly, for people in poverty to feel better about themselves.”
In other words, voters are being bribed. Gary Bauer, the deathless evangelical leader who still fills seats at these sorts of events, uses his afternoon speech to name and shame the moochers. “There’s a lot of people out now around America who depend on checks from their fellow taxpayers being in the mailbox every day,” Bauer says. “They will turn out in massive numbers.”
You hear enough of this misery, and you start thinking about the endgame. What if Mitt Romney actually manages to blow this election? The Values Voters will never say that he failed to win the center, because they won’t believe it. They’ll say that he never drew the contrast between what Obama was doing to America and how he and Paul Ryan, specifically, would fix it. They’ll say that this left evangelical voters—few of whom liked Romney in the first placed—disengaged.
Standing near one of the conference’s banks of water coolers, I notice William Temple. This is not hard to do. Temple, the “Tea Party patriot,” dresses in various Colonial costumes and yells, “Huzzah!” when he hears something he likes. He’s the first person that bemused members of the foreign press try to interview, because the image is just too good. He trekked up to D.C. from Georgia and managed to get all kinds of clattering metal props through security. He’s worried, too.
”We picked probably the weakest candidate we could,” says Temple. “Someone like a Herman Cain or a Michele Bachmann would have ’em fired up.”
Corrections, Sept. 17, 2012: This article originally stated that the Obama administration is not enforcing DOMA. In fact, it is not defending DOMA in court. Because of a copy-editing error, it stated that Obama "appointed two anti-abortion Supreme Court justices." He nominated two pro-abortion-rights justices. (Return to the corrected paragraph.)