Gimme That Old Time Marketing

Shortly after his 1988 Presidential campaign fizzled, religious broadcaster and multimillionaire entrepreneur Pat Robertson sat down for lunch at a Virginia Beach (Va.) diner with a baby-faced 29-year-old PhD named Ralph Reed Jr. Munching on a steak sub, Robertson outlined an ambitious vision for a new startup venture--a grassroots movement to infuse American politics with his brand of social conservatism. The next day, Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, produced a 10-year business plan to transform Robertson from political pariah to kingmaker.

Reed's blueprint has exceeded all expectations. By combining state-of-the-art marketing techniques with evangelical fervor, the Christian Coalition has soared in six years from 1,000 to 1.7 million members, with its influence spreading from local school boards to Capitol Hill. It dominates some 18 Republican state organizations, and nearly all the 1996 GOP White House hopefuls are seeking its blessing. The group's next show of clout comes at a Nov. 18 Republican Presidential straw poll in Orlando. The neutral Reed--who learned realpolitik under Jesse A. Helms and Jack F. Kemp--hopes to pack the hall so that whoever wins will owe the coalition a big political debt. Says Claremont McKenna College professor Ed Haley: "They've made a huge difference for Republicans. They pack a political sting in their tail."

Is the coalition's phenomenal growth a striking testament to the power of faith? Only partly. Robertson and Reed have also looked to a decidedly more secular source for inspiration: Big Business. They've employed textbook formulas for targeted marketing that would make an MBA proud. After developing a core customer base of evangelical Christians, they've broadened their message to widen their appeal. Using polls and focus groups, the coalition has added issues such as "pro-family" tax cuts, tough anticrime measures, and greater local control of schools to its religious priorities of school prayer and abortion curbs.

E-MAIL FLOOD. To advance that agenda, Reed relies on state-of-the-art technology--the Internet, phone banks, high-speed faxes, and satellite downlinks. Last fall, for example, the coalition flooded Congress with tens of thousands of phone calls, telegrams, and E-mail to block a lobby-reform bill requiring greater disclosure by some Christian activists.

Finally, like any well-run corporate subsidiary, the coalition has developed synergies with other parts of Robertson's empire, which generates more than $500 million in annual revenues. Among its holdings: the Christian Broadcasting Network; the American Center for Law & Justice, a conservative legal foundation; Regent University, a religious school in Virginia Beach; Operation Blessing, a nonprofit humanitarian group; and the International Family Entertainment cable-TV consortium.

The family ties can be critical. For example, the coalition gets free promotion through Robertson's daily TV show, The 700 Club, available to 95% of U.S. cable households. Recently, Reed promised to get Representative David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.) on The 700 Club to push a bill to curb lobbying by liberal nonprofit groups, a coalition priority. "This amounts to an enormous in-kind contribution," grouses Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church & State.

Robertson's empire benefits, too. This year, Reed donated a $50,000 advance from the coalition's new book, Contract With the American Family, to Operation Blessing. And the soft-spoken Reed provides political cover for the controversial Robertson, whose preaching against a shadowy global banking conspiracy and the separation of church and state frightens many mainstream voters.

Key to the financing of Reed's plan is aggressive membership development. In 1994, the coalition spent $1.6 million renting other telemarketing lists--whose sources ranged from Christian magazines to discount retailers--in search of converts. Reed's goal: 10 million Christians by the year 2000, including a million enlistees in the Catholic Alliance, a subsidiary launched on Oct. 11.

RUFFLED FEATHERS. Businesslike promotions have helped the coalition fatten its coffers as well. Some state affiliates have negotiated contracts with Lifeline Inc., a long-distance carrier that lets subscribers donate 10% of their bills to a broad range of nonprofits, including the coalition. But the campaign has ruffled some corporate feathers. In urging Christians to use Lifeline, Arkansas Coalition Chair Kevin D. McCray accused AT&T, MCI Communications, and Sprint of promoting antifamily activities by doing business with homosexual groups and sponsoring sex-filled TV shows. MCI and Sprint deny the charge. AT&T spokesman Burke Stinson fires back: "It's in their interest to bash AT&T, MCI, and Sprint--they convince people to switch long-distance carriers to Lifeline and line their own pockets."

Thinking like business execs has helped Robertson & Co. avoid pitfalls that stalled other loose-knit conservative religious movements such as the Reverend Jerry M. Falwell's Moral Majority. Robertson chairs the coalition's tightly controlled board of directors, whose other two members are longtime friends: Dick Weinhold, his 1988 campaign finance director, and the Reverend Billy McCormack, the coalition's Louisiana chair. Reed, the $122,500-a-year director, oversees 60 staffers at a headquarters in a Chesapeake (Va.) industrial park. His management team--much like that of a typical company--includes a chief financial officer, field operations director, head of government relations, and customer-service manager.

Reed closely commands affiliates by structuring them as franchise-style operations. He requires state groups to sign legally binding agreements that give him power to revoke licenses of any affiliate that strays from the fold. That was a problem for Falwell, who couldn't rein in a Maryland chapter that launched an embarrassing crusade against an Annapolis bakery that made anatomically correct gingerbread figures.

With Robertson providing plenty of free advertising for the coalition's fund-raising, Reed is able to spend 65% of donations on issue-oriented campaigns. Examples: distributing 17 million scorecards that grade members of Congress on pro-family issues and making 90,000 calls to mobilize members against the Clinton health-reform plan. "We're selling a product here," explains coalition lobbyist Brian C. Lopina. "We make a sale when someone calls their Congressman."

DIVIDING THE GOP? Critics contend that the coalition's emphasis on political causes--and its cozy ties to the GOP--require it to register as a political committee. That would force the group to disclose its secret list of donors and limit spending on elections. The Democratic National Committee is asking the Internal Revenue Service to deny the group's pending request for tax-exempt status because of its deep political roots.

Even in Corporate America, some executives fear the coalition's focus on divisive social issues will overshadow the conservative economic agenda that unites Republicans. The group "is not doing anything to bring mainstream people to the party," grumbles Richard V. Quinn Jr., vice-president of the Principal Financial Group. "It's going to divide and weaken the party."

Reed dismisses such grousing and insists the coalition is on solid legal ground. Even if Democrats were to prevail, he says, "all that would happen is we would set up a political committee and funnel some of our money from that. It's not going to stop us."

Critics would reluctantly agree. Reed's strategic savvy, Robertson's financial resources, and eager foot soldiers ready for a crusade make the Christian Coalition a fierce competitor for the Establishment. And its political stock seems likely to keep rising for years to come.

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