Sabatos Crystal Ball

Jerry Falwell and the Politics of Double-Edged Swords

PLUS: A Kentucky Barn Burner?

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics May 18th, 2007


Religion is well beyond the scope of the Crystal Ball (thank goodness), but there is no denying the intersection of religion and politics in America.

In 1928 Democrat Al Smith lost in part because of his Catholicism, and John F. Kennedy nearly lost in 1960 for much the same reason. (At least one study has suggested that a generic Protestant Democrat would have handily dispatched Richard Nixon, in place of JFK’s squeaker win with a fraud-expanded 119,000-vote national plurality.) Jimmy Carter in 1976 brought fundamentalist Christianity out of the political closet, and it may have assisted his victory in many GOP-friendly Southern and Border states. Ironically, Carter felt the lash of many of those same Christians in 1980. They had become disillusioned with him because of his liberal positions on many social issues (including his acceptance of Roe v. Wade), and they defected in droves to Ronald Reagan.

Of course, leading the Reagan charge among conservative Christians was the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his “Moral Majority.” His death this week has reminded us of the extraordinary role he played in American politics. Yes, Reagan would have won in 1980 had Falwell never been born, given Carter’s economic mess and the Iranian hostage crisis. But Falwell should be given at least partial credit for turning millions of politically apathetic Americans into a lasting force. The press has noted all this with sweeping generalizations about Falwell’s towering influence.

That is only part of the story. Falwell’s sway was in GOP nominating battles, not general elections, from the start. Low turnout primaries and caucuses are made to order for well organized, dedicated cadres. The general election is something else again. What has not been stressed enough is what a lightning rod Falwell became, and very quickly–with the preacher’s negatively charged electrons frequently dispersing more November voters (independents, well educated suburbanites who were fiscal conservatives but social libertarians, the young, etc.) than attracting them.

On this point we are reminded of a nearly forgotten but extremely telling example from Falwell’s earliest days in politics. Prophets are often without honor in their own country, and Falwell became exceptionally disliked in his home state of Virginia. Just a year after Reagan’s smashing victory in Virginia, the state was electing its next Governor. After eighty-four years of continuous Democratic rule in the statehouse, Republican Linwood Holton had captured the governorship in 1969, and he was followed by two other Republicans (Mills E. Godwin in 1973 and John N. Dalton in 1977). As 1981 dawned, most observers expected Republicans to extend their control in the conservative state. (Remember, this was long before the recent growth of Northern Virginia and the transformation of Virginia from a Red state into a “Purple” state.) GOP state Attorney General Marshall Coleman, running on a slogan of “Keep a Good Thing Going,” faced Democratic Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, former President Lyndon Johnson’s son-in-law. While LBJ had carried the state narrowly in 1964, the civil-rights and Vietnam President had become very unpopular in later years, and he was a mixed blessing for Robb.

Governor Dalton and President Reagan had high popularity ratings, and Coleman was running as their natural heir. Still, Robb’s moderate, clean-cut Marine image was attractive, and a close contest was anticipated, with fundraising and polls about even. During most elections in the 1970s, Virginia’s newly-developed GOP tilt kicked in at election’s end to send the Republican to victory lane in gubernatorial and U.S. Senate battles. Coleman and his party expected the same closing momentum.

However, a last minute event intervened to tip the election to Robb. That event centered on Jerry Falwell. The good reverend had been uncharacteristically quiet during the campaign, and everyone knew why. Falwell was an electoral polarizer of the first rank, and Virginians had taken a strong dislike to the moralizing Lynchburg preacher. One poll showed that 54 percent of the electorate had a negative view of him, compared to just 10 percent with a positive view. In another survey, likely voters said a Falwell endorsement would be much more harmful than helpful: 4 percent indicated they would go with Falwell’s choice, 24 percent said they would vote against his preference. Independents and suburbanites, key swing groups that had been casting GOP ballots in large numbers, were especially suspicious of Falwell and the Moral Majority.

Inexplicably–but typically for the outspoken Falwell–the preacher gave a radio interview on election eve indicating that he would vote for Coleman and the whole Republican ticket. This received wide attention in TV, radio, and news reports that day and on the morning of the election. It was the last piece of new information most voters received before casting a ballot.

Chuck Robb and his Democratic running-mates won the election by a surprisingly large margin, and it was the first straight-ticket election in Virginia since 1965. There were no state exit polls in those days, and it is impossible to say for certain that Falwell made the difference. Yet the state’s most informed voter fingered Falwell.

On the day after the election, I was sitting in my University of Virginia office when the phone rang at about noon. It was Governor Dalton, wanting to chew over the returns. Naturally, he was disconsolate, and I asked him what he thought had turned the election so quickly and completely to the Democrats. His answer is burned in my memory. With his unmistakable mountain-valley twang, he said bluntly:

“I thought I had an agreement with Jerry Falwell not to say anything. Our private polls showed the same thing as the public polls. He was poison, and he said he’d stay out. When my staff told me about this [endorsement] on Monday, I like to fall out of my chair. I knew what it meant. We all did. But that’s Jerry. He’s gonna do what he’s gonna do, and we’re picking up the pieces.”

Governor Dalton, a fine man who served honorably and died too young in July 1986 of lung cancer, got it exactly right and captured the essence of Jerry Falwell. Like him or not, Falwell was not controllable. He would say or do what he thought was right, often oblivious to the political consequences and unable to distinguish between the help he could bring in the nominating contest and the harm he could do in the general election.

Perhaps because Falwell was so close to home and spoke up so often, Virginians were ahead of the nation in sizing up the pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church. Just as Falwell hurt the Virginia GOP in 1981, Falwell and his fellow fundamentalist preachers have given the national Republican Party too conservative a cast on many social issues. Some Red states are turning “Purple” because of it.

Political parties must serve their constituency groups and keep them motivated to work hard, but they can’t appear to be captives of those groups lest moderates and independents rebel. Both parties have learned this over time, and both parties have suffered when the delicate balance has come undone. The 1981 Virginia case study is a cautionary tale for Republicans and Democrats alike as they approach the 2008 presidential election. With a possible moderate independent ticket for President in the offing, the major parties may be hard pressed to keep their polarizers from speaking too loudly—and they had better hope it doesn’t happen on election eve.

A Kentucky Barn Burner?

David Wasserman, U.Va. Center for Politics

Are you an election junkie in withdrawal now that the cacaphony of the 2006 midterms is behind us? The Crystal Ball recommends you turn your attention to Kentucky next Tuesday. The races have changed significantly since our last Bluegrass reading, and though detailing all of the drama unfolding in both parties’ gubernatorial primaries would leave us blue in the face, we would be remiss if we didn’t offer a brief preview:

To follow the returns on Tuesday from the comfort of your own home, here’s a link to the Kentucky Board of Election’s live results tracker: To our friends to the West, happy voting!