As the 1996 political season got under way, Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed made a pragmatic decision. He wouldn't rally his troops behind the Republican Presidential candidate with the most conservative social views if it meant backing a loser. Instead, he would post forces across the field to ensure an in with the eventual nominee--who looked a lot like Establishment conservative Bob Dole.
Sounds smart, since the tax-exempt coalition is barred from formally endorsing candidates. But Reed forgot to check with his troops. The leadership may be winking in Dole's direction, but the followers aren't in the mood for practical politics. They're joining commentator Pat Buchanan's cultural war against Wall Street and the Washington elites. "He is another Abraham Lincoln," says smitten Buchanan supporter Mitchell Kalpakgian, an English teacher from Indianola, Iowa. "He has the courage to address our moral crisis without compromise."
SQUABBLES. That's the kind of zeal leaders can't stifle. In the Feb. 20 Iowa caucuses, Dole had the longest list of evangelical activists' endorsements, including Iowa Christian Coalition Chair Ione Dilley and crooner Pat Boone--but Buchanan trounced the Kansas senator, 2 to 1, among self-identified members of the "religious right." That followed a Louisiana caucus in which Buchanan took half of the born-again vote against the Christian Establishment's choice, Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who settled for 31%. And Buchanan is poised to ride the religious wave over the next few weeks in primaries in Arizona, South Carolina, Colorado, and Georgia, which all have potent religious machines. "What the leaders do is insignificant, it appears," says Bay Buchanan, the candidate's sister and campaign manager. "You win elections not with a few leaders but with the activists."
Such internal squabbling is a sign of growing pains for the 1.7 million-member coalition as it evolves from an upstart player to an enduring power broker. It has already made itself a key force behind Republican gains in recent years by registering millions of voters--and then turning them out to win targeted races from local school boards to Congress.
Moreover, social conservatives have had a major impact on the '96 Presidential campaign. Conservative Christian activists have pressured GOP White House hopefuls to move toward their agenda of abortion restrictions, gay rights curbs, and school prayer. They also helped puncture millionaire Steve Forbes's balloon in Iowa after doubting his support of a constitutional abortion ban and curbs on gays.
But success has its limits. Just ask the leaders of organized labor: Rank-and-file unionists ignored AFL-CIO endorsements of Democrats Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984, voting instead for Ronald Reagan. Now, the Christian Coalition is learning that its diverse membership can't be delivered as a bloc, either.
The '96 race has exposed a key fissure. There are purists who favor only staunch champions of family issues, and there are pragmatists who will settle for a candidate who is not 100% behind the social agenda--but who would pose the strongest challenge to Bill Clinton. Coalition leaders angered some purists by urging the rank and file to hedge their bets. "Ralph Reed has compromised his own convictions and those of the organization by attempting to play political power broker," says Drew R. Ivers, Buchanan's Iowa campaign chairman. "He's doing what's politically expedient rather than what's right for the country and the conservative Christian community, long term."
The lesson of '96 so far? Like other groups of voters, religious activists follow their own instincts--even if it may mean backing a losing cause.