COLUMBUS, Ohio—World Harvest Church is situated on 57 acres southeast of this state’s capital. A driver can spot it from a quarter-mile away, the 5,200-seat chapel poking out of flat land dotted by flags. You walk in and are greeted by black ushers—striking in the suburbs. You take a pew and the parishioners—again, mostly black—chat amiably as TV screens count down the seconds until the service begins. When the countdown reaches one minute, a curtain rises and reveals a stage large enough to fit a Les Miserables finale. The service starts on time, with a gospel choir, then into some keyboard-and-guitar-powered pop-gospel that sends half the audience into a palm-raising rapture.
The real magic is the chorus, repeated again and again in higher keys:
My soul my soul
magnifies the lord
Magnifies the lord
He has done great things for me
Great things for me
At the front of the room, a 50-something man with a sharp suit and slicked-forward hair pumps his fist and bounces on his heels. The Rev. Rod Parsley turns to the audience, banging his head, beckoning the faithful, asking them—there’s really no other way to put this—to raise the roof.
Years ago, after it was too late, Democrats realized that Rod Parsley had outsmarted them at the polls. He was an early backer of Ohio’s gay marriage ban, which boosted George W. Bush over John Kerry, especially with conservative blacks. The next year he co-founded Reformation Ohio, calling for a “Holy Ghost invasion” that would register 400,000 voters and spread the gospel to 1 million people. In 2008, he endorsed John McCain for president. Then came a fuss over Parsley’s opinion of Islam (“the greatest religious enemy of our civilization”), and the candidate denounced his endorser. Today, right before another election, Parsley isn’t doing much for any candidate.
“Think of the princes of Israel,” he says, pacing the stage, his amplified voice rising to a shout. “Those government leaders who tax and tax, and tax and tax, and tax and tax, and stole from the women, and took from the children, to finance things that they did not need!” But: “I’m talkin’ about all of them. Vote themselves raises, and then ask you for more taxes to pay for it, when you already can’t pay your bills. But please don’t complain! You’re in the top 25 percent of the richest people on the planet if you live on the streets of Columbus.” Parsley tells the crowd that Democrats and Republicans, both of them, were just as helpful in passing relief for the Christians of Darfur. He doesn’t sound like a man with a candidate.
If Mitt Romney wins Ohio, an outcome that would now be seen as an upset, it will be the way George W. Bush won it: Republicans and religious groups blowing the doors off on turnout, swamping the Democrat lines in Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. The old conservative turnout machines are supposed to be augmented by the Tea Party. They will outplay the Democrats’ data campaign and the unions and the black churches’ “souls to the polls” operation.
Will they? Here’s a quick guide to the nonparty groups that are expected to push out voters.
The Evangelicals. They’re working in plain sight. At Romney’s show-of-strength rally in Cincinnati, Focus on the Family’s “Values Voter bus” parked near the entrance and volunteers passed out voter guides that told extremely forgetful people about the president’s stands on gay marriage and abortion. The local Citizens for Community Values passed out their own versions of the same guides; volunteers for that Cincinnati-based group are traveling the state in RVs, church to church, trying to recapture the Bush magic. “If the Christian vote comes out,” said a voter at Romney’s rally, “we win.”
Maybe. In 2004, according to exit polls, 25 percent of Ohio voters were white evangelicals or born-again Christians, and they broke for George W. Bush by 52 points. In 2008, the evangelical share of the vote was actually higher—30 percent—and John McCain carried it by only 44 points. Even if McCain had scored those Bush numbers, he would have lost. And no one can tell you whether the first Mormon presidential candidate can pull similar numbers. Some conservative leaders are counting on fear of Obama more than affinity with Romney.
The Tea Party. In a DoubleTree hotel north of Cincinnati, in one of the ground-floor suites, David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity has gathered a small army of canvassers. In the parking lot: two vans for organizers, plastered with slogans reminding people that “[Democrat Sen. Sherrod] Brown Cast the Deciding Vote for Obamacare.” Had I arrived earlier Saturday morning, I would have seen 10 passenger vans taking 236 AFP volunteers into the swingier parts of the suburbs.