How Evangelicals, the Tea Party, Black Churches, and Unions Will Decide Ohio

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 5 2012 4:42 PM

The Other Ohio Campaigns

How Evangelicals, the Tea Party, black churches, and unions will affect the election in Ohio.

Congregation members attend a Sunday service at the First Presbyterian Church on October 28, 2012 in Warren, Ohio.
Congregation members attend a Sunday service at the First Presbyterian Church on October 28, 2012 in Warren, Ohio. Political analysts have predicted Ohio voters could potentially decide the upcoming Presidential election.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

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.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

The real magic is the chorus, repeated again and again in higher keys:

My soul my soul
magnifies the lord
My soul
Magnifies the lord
My soul
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.

The man in charge is Corey Lewandowski, AFP’s New Hampshire state director. As we talk, two volunteers walk in, ask for directions, and are given tote bags of AFP gear before heading out to canvass. “At every door,” says Lewandowski, “they ring the bell. If someone answers, they ask, ‘Do you think this administration’s policies have helped or hurt the economy?’ ”

This is called “persuasion” canvassing. AFP started its get-out-the-vote effort Sunday, but from the time I first checked out its operation in Virginia to the time I got to Ohio, it was using a sophisticated system of lists and tablets to have door-to-door talks, not to turn out the votes of those already persuaded. In Ohio, where early voting has been possible since Oct. 3, I was a little surprised by the focus. And then I found this strategy in other Tea Party groups.

Four years ago, Ed and Gena Bell spent the last weeks of the campaign canvassing for John McCain, on behalf of the local Republican Party, in their Cincinnati suburbs. After the 2008 elections, they became founders of the local Tea Party. This year, they’re working with FreedomWorks, the other umbrella Tea Party group, and canvassing—but not for Mitt Romney. They’re having conversations with voters who they hope will vote for the GOP’s U.S. Senate candidate, Josh Mandel. Some of the Tea Party’s membership has joined the GOP machine. Those working for big Tea Party groups, though—they’re either working quietly on “voter integrity” challenges to the voter rolls or working parallel to the party, trying to outdo it.

“Whether it’s Republicans, or Democrats, Ohio or New Hampshire, I don’t understand the relevance of parties anymore,” says Lewandowski. “They’re not using tablets. They’re using paper and information that’s probably a year old.”

The Black Church. On Saturday evening I walk down to the basement of New Hope Baptist Church, north of Cincinnati’s Martin Luther King Boulevard. The AFL-CIO has joined the community-organizing AMOS project and a group of black pastors for a small, pre-“souls to the polls” rally, starring the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He’s late, thanks to a Chicago plane delay, but a moderator says he’s driving in “as fast as he can, within the law.” When he arrives, he hangs back and lets the AFL-CIO’s Arlene Holt Baker finish her speech about how “the poll tax was very expensive” to her family, before the Civil Rights Act was passed.

Jackson’s turn. He walks to a podium and leads a low-energy version of his standard chant.

I am!
Somebody!
I am!
Somebody!
I work.
Respect me.
Protect Me.
Pay Me.
Stop the violence.
Save the children.
Stop the violence.
Save the children.
Save the workers.
Save the families.

The speech is rote, and the union volunteers sort of sit through it, but the pastors love it. “This vote suppression is going to backfire on somebody,” he says. Everybody in the room can finish the thought—since early-voting hours were extended, the Republicans will lose. “It’s better than four years ago,” says Jackson, after the speech is over. “We didn’t know it would rain. Dry machines, wet people. People voting until midnight. People are more ready now to fight the schemes.”

On Sunday, after the church service, I check out the “souls to the polls” effect in Summit County. The county is only 15 percent African-American; the polling place is in Akron, which is 30 percent African-American. Most of the people queued up to vote are African-American.

The Unions. Sunday afternoon, after I finish talking to the queued at that early-voting site, I walk a block and a half to the party Democrats are holding for their faithful. A small crowd noshes on sandwiches, chicken wings, and brownies decorated with patriotic icing. Members of the local machinists union are here. The Teamsters, I’m told, are busy at their “war room” up the road, where they’re trying to cut into the Republican advantage in the suburbs and rural counties. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, was just out there, in Brilliant, Ohio, on his way to campaign in Pennsylvania.

Molly Ball’s reporting nails it: The labor vote is Democrats’ not-at-all-secret weapon in Ohio. In 2011, while their comrades in Wisconsin were only winning two of the three state Senate recall votes they needed to take power in the chamber, Ohio unions were getting out votes to repeal the state’s Wisconsin-esque union reform bill. They won with 62 percent. Lesson 1: It’s easier to drive a ballot measure to victory than it is to defeat a candidate. Lesson 2: Of all the third-party groups fighting it out tomorrow, they know best where their voters are, and how to persuade them.

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