Mitt Romney heads to Lynchburg tomorrow to deliver the commencement address at Liberty University. The school is set, geographically, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains but in terms of political geography, Liberty is Ground Zero for Romney’s election bid. Liberty University, begun in 1971 as Liberty Baptist College by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, is the largest evangelical university in the country. According to Liberty, they will confer some 14,000 degrees this spring, 60 percent of which will go to online students.
Throughout the primaries, the higher the percentage of white evangelical voters in a given state, the worse Romney did. Until all the other candidates dropped out of the race, Romney failed to win a single state in which white evangelicals were a majority of voters. In October 2011, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, Romney managed only a 40 percent favorability rating from white evangelical Protestants.
Since the nominating contest ended, the proverbial $64,000 question, or better to say, the 270 electoral vote question, has been whether white evangelicals would embrace Romney and do so with enough enthusiasm to help him in key swing states. Romney – or virtually and republican – is guaranteed to win the heart of the Bible Belt, states like South Carolina, Alabama and Oklahoma. But, white evangelicals can prove decisive in swing states like Virginia, Ohio and Missouri, too.
The challenge for Romney is not merely to convince evangelicals to look past their theological differences to the points of common, political agreement. The real challenge is how to do that in such a way that he does not alienate the swing voters in the electorate. He could, in his speech tomorrow, deliver a jeremiad, denounce President Obama’s support for gay marriage, focus on the “war on religion,” etc., in short, throw some red meat to a crowd that likes red meat. But, suburban swing voters don’t like red meat, and so Romney must walk a tightrope from here until November: How to excite the base without frightening the center?
When President George H. W. Bush went to Liberty to deliver the commencement address in 1990, it was still possible to have parallel conversations that did not overlap. Bush was the first sitting president to speak at the school and his mere presence was enough to enthuse the crowd. Falwell had gone on board Marine One to welcome President and Mrs. Bush and, just as importantly, to have his picture taken with the president, walking down the steps of the presidential helicopter as they emerged together. Bush chose an anodyne topic for his speech, the importance of volunteering, and just to make sure that his appearance at the evangelical icon’s school did not worry centrist, non-evangelicals, Bush provided the “news” of the day, the formation of a democracy corps for Eastern Europe, at an earlier commencement speech at the University of South Carolina that morning. The South Carolina speech led the mainstream news, but the Liberty appearance was the focus of countless evangelical news and radio and television programs.
In the age of YouTube, there are no more parallel conversations in our culture. Falwell and other preachers had learned to know their audience: When appearing on the Phil Donohue Show, Falwell would not quote scripture as proof, the way he would in the pulpit on Sunday. You could be sweet reasonableness in the public square and still dish up some red meat within the Church. Romney has no such luxury. If he does not deliver himself of some red meat, those conservative evangelicals who worry not so much about his Mormonism as about his “moderate from Massachusetts” reputation will be sorely disappointed. Especially after Obama voiced his support for same-sex marriage, Romney must decide whether to address the gay rights issue which, now as in Falwell’s day, is a perennial of evangelical sermons and fundraising appeals. His failure to do so will be noticed and commented upon by his audience at Williams Stadium tomorrow. If Romney decides to don his culture warrior hat, coverage of the speech will be flashed across the screens of television sets in suburban Columbus, Ohio and Orlando, Florida. It is jarring, on a Saturday afternoon, to go from coverage of the PGA to a culture war rant, and moderate suburbanites do not like to be jarred.
Still, the smart money says that Romney will, and should, dodge the culture wars tomorrow. Despite his lackluster showing among evangelicals during the primaries, the latest survey from PRRI shows Romney consolidating the white evangelical vote. His 40 percent favorability in October has climbed to a 67 percent favorability now, although only 7 percent are willing to say they are “very favorable” towards Romney. But, Obama may be doing Romney’s work for him among white evangelicals. Liberty University may be one of the few college campuses where the student body is hostile to gay rights and so while Romney would risk no boo’s from the crowd if he attacks Obama’s position on the issue, this is not a crowd he needs to rile up either. If you walk through the parking lot tomorrow in Lynchburg, I doubt you will find many Obama stickers.
I have been somewhat surprised to see the muted response of GOP leaders to Obama’s announcement. Clearly, that response is being crafted from Romney’s campaign HQ in Boston. In addition to not wanting to offend swing voters in the burbs, libertarians are resistant to pushing the anti-gay meme, and Romney needs their enthusiasm in November too. More than anything, though, Romney needs to run a campaign that keeps the focus squarely on Obama and the anemic economy. Anytime he is not talking about jobs is a bad time for Romney. In the event, Falwell’s commitment to laissez-faire economics was as strong as his commitment to traditional marriage, so I would look for Romney to slam Obama on economic issues tomorrow or to do what most commencement speakers do – talk to the kids about their future.