Rick Warren Christian Forum Analysis

John McCain and Barack Obama participated in the Saddleback Civil Forum on Presidency hosted by Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, last Saturday. The audience was comprised mostly of Christian conservatives. Pastor Warren conducted the forum in two parts: the first being a one-on-one with Barack Obama and the second a one-on-one with John McCain. Both candidates were asked identical questions, although John McCain received a few more questions because he generally answered more quickly. No follow-up questions were asked, nor were members of the audience allowed to ask questions. Both candidates were interviewed for an hour each. Per Pastor Warren, McCain was placed in a soundproof area backstage so that he wouldn't have an unfair advantage because Obama would receive the questions first.

Barack Obama

Coming into the forum, Obama's task was to present himself as surprisingly palatable to Christian conservatives who might have been hostile towards him. As a liberal pro-choice Democrat who is mistakenly seen as a Muslim, Obama was entering politically unfriendly territory.

Obama generally spoke in a careful, thoughtful way. However, because he was clearly thinking about his responses on the fly, this led to a lot of hesitation in his delivery. This may feed into the idea that Obama is not a good speaker without a teleprompter and that he is too cerebral and dispassionate. However, he did seem more comfortable talking about his faith than the Democratic stereotype. And his desire to find consensus at the expense of ideological purity underscored his message of unity. Again, his responses showed him to be careful and methodical in his thinking. There were no yes or no answers, but rather a lot of nuances. But again, this could come across as him being slow on his feet, weak, calculating, or indecisive.

Best moment: His final words of the evening in which he spoke honestly to the public by saying if they wanted better roads, better schools, health insurance, and energy independence, it would require sacrifices in that we would have to pay for them or make some tough lifestyle changes. Being upfront about the small print may help voters view him as a bit more trustworthy. This contrasts nicely with other politicians who promise the moon without telling anyone how they would pay for it.

Worst moment: Pastor Warren asked when a baby should have human rights. While his actual answer was quite thoughtful and showed Obama as wanting to find common ground by reducing the number of abortions, he gave Republicans a delicious piece of video by saying that the question of when life began was "above his pay grade." Look for that soundbite to find its way into many an attack ad from now until November. These four words crowded out everything else Obama said on the subject, which is unfortunate for him because it likely blunted any momentum he had been building with the crowd and the Christian conservative community in general.

John McCain

Judging from the amount of laughter and applause, John McCain seemed to connect with the crowd better than Barack Obama, though the evangelical crowd was obviously more likely to be in McCain's corner to begin with. McCain also talked a lot about his personal story (particularly Vietnam) and talked more to the audience, whereas Obama talked more to Pastor Warren.

Anyone who has watched a lot of political coverage over the past few months probably noticed that McCain delved into his stump speech on many occasions. He pivoted from flip flopping to hammering home the importance of offshore drilling and recycled his jokes about France having a pro-America president and not knowing whether a $3 million earmark about studying bear DNA was a paternity issue or a criminal issue. The audience responded favorably regardless.

Pastor Warren seemed to let him get away with this. Careful observers also may have noticed that Warren commonly referred to McCain by his first name, thus leading some to believe that McCain's interview was softer. (read the transcript here)

McCain tended to give short, snappy answers to Pastor Warren's questions. This made him look strong, decisive, and authoritative. However, he also had a tendency to answer questions before they were asked and did not provide much explanation or justification for his responses. President Bush is infamous for not listening to others and for black-and-white thinking. John McCain seemed to display a similar sense of rashness and bimodal thinking, which contrasted greatly with Barack Obama's more measured approach.

Because follow-up questions were not a part of the forum, McCain was fortunate that Pastor Warren did not challenge him on some of his responses. When asked what to do about evil, for example, McCain simply said "defeat it." That response played well with the crowd and reinforced his commander-in-chief aura. But as the situation in Georgia indicates, the US military does not have the troops available to "defeat" evil there. Evil is taking place on a daily basis in North Korea and Darfur. Will we "defeat" evil there too? McCain is clearly trying to project strength, but he may have overplayed his hand by reminding voters of what they dislike about President Bush--"dead or alive" and "bring it on." This kind of tough talk may not play well with an electorate that is weary of war and nervous about getting involved in another conflict.

Best moment: "I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies." Any doubts Christian conservatives had about John McCain beforehand likely dissipated upon hearing this remark. He was clearly trying to shore up his base and increase their enthusiasm about his campaign. The catcalls and loud applause he received suggested that he was successful. A ginned up evangelical base makes Obama's ability to pick off Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina a bit more difficult.

Worst moment: When he was asked which Supreme Court justice he would not have nominated, he only needed to name one. However, he rattled off the names of all four moderate to liberal justices. Then he pandered to the crowd by saying Justices Roberts and Alito were "his two newest favorite justices." This may have played well with the crowd, but it undermined his "independent" message and made him look more partisan and less moderate. This plays right into Obama's message of bipartisanship and finding common ground.

One of the disturbing bits of analysis being propagated by the media, such as CNN analyst Tony Perkins, is the idea that part of the reason why John McCain did so well was because the expectations for him were so low. I am not sure why expectations for him were so low or if they should have been low to begin with. John McCain is drubbing Barack Obama among evangelicals. And Democrats are not known for being friendly to Christians. And Barack Obama is still fending off questions that he's a Muslim. So if anything, Obama displayed a lot more courage by entering "enemy territory" and presenting himself as a man of faith whom Christians can find tolerable. Having said that, Obama is still on the wrong side of many critical social issues as far as evangelicals are concerned, so he likely did not win many new votes.

It is very difficult for McCain to appeal to moderates, independents, and conservatives at the same time. A Republican could have won in 2000 or 2004 by appealing mainly to conservatives, but they represent a smaller slice of the electorate in 2008. John McCain will need to expand his base in order to win this election. Casting his lot with religious conservatives may strengthen him in the South, but they make him more vulnerable in the West, where libertarian-conservatism is more popular than social conservatism. Voters in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada in particular should be watched carefully. Alaska, Montana, and the Dakotas are also closer than many people think.


The only major news that resulted from this debate is that this debate actually happened and consisted of largely substantive questions that standard journalists would be wise to pursue on their own. As for the politicians' performances, they likely confirmed people's existing opinions. People who were already supporting John McCain probably still support him and think he did a good job. People who were behind Barack Obama probably thought he performed adequately. McCain came across as Bush-like in his black and white thinking. Obama came across as weak and indecisive because of his hesitant delivery. John McCain probably staunched the bleeding among evangelicals, but Barack Obama probably didn't scare them away from his own camp either.

Coming out of the forum, the contrast between the two candidates is great. Barack Obama clearly appeals to voters' intellect and requires you to think about what he says. John McCain clearly appeals to voters' gut and requires you to trust what he says. Guts won in 2000 and 2004 and is the message Hillary Clinton should have adopted earlier. But perhaps the electorate is so sour right now that it doesn't matter.

This race is looking less like a blowout with each passing week.

Barack Obama: B-
John McCain: B+

11 comment(s):

Black Political Analysis said...

It seems as if part of the reason McCain seemed more comfortable and answered questions before they were even asked was that it's possible he heard the questions beforehand.

Nonetheless, this is an event Obama knew he wasn't going to "win", so it's better for him to be thoughtful and lose by a little than be rash and lose by a lot.

DB said...

While I think both guys did a good job, I just have to point out that this was pointless and presented nothing new to me that I didn't already know about the candidates (yes, we know McCain was a PoW and Obama wants the Christian vote). We already had two or so "values" debates where some of these main issues where discussed. When are we going to get past the "values" questions and get a forum going on the economy, or the war? Or education, or energy? Hearing Obama give a speech and watching McCain's town halls are too rehearsed and commercials are just fluff. We need more one on ones with these guys to truly know who they are, like this one, but on other issues as well. Let's get them out in front of a mic and answer the questions that help us decide whose ideas are better for the country. Unrehearsed of course.

Thomas said...

How much will John McCain play the "underdog" card this fall? And will it work?

That is what I am wondering about this morning.

Brett said...

One comment - apparently, McCain actually was not in the "Cone of Silence" before he arrived; he was in his motorcade on the way to the event. As BPA points out, that opens up the possibility that he cheated, and heard the questions beforehand and planned answers. There's no way to really prove it, though, short of an aide coming forth.

Of course, that would mean that Rick Warren either had a massive oversight regarding the backstage presence of McCain, or was dishonest to the Obama campaign and the audience. Go figure.

Thomas said...

According to the Political Wire:

"So it turns out that Pastor Rick Warren, in an effort to increase the candidates' comfort level with his pioneering format, gave each of them a heads-up on several of the hardest questions he asked Saturday night..." A source close to Warren tells Mike Allen that Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama "knew in advance they would be asked their own greatest moral failure, America's greatest moral failure, and the three wisest people in their lives."

Guardsman Bass said...

As for your last comment, Anthony, I'm almost wondering if it is even possible for there to be a real blow-out in modern presidential races. It was possible during the Television Age; LBJ annihilated Goldwater in 1964, and Reagan dealt Mondale an equally humiliating blow in 1984.

But now, the vetting has gotten so extreme, and the reaction to every possible little scandal and slight so rapid, that many candidates with obvious flaws that might lead them to a catastrophic flop tend to get wiped out in the very long primary races. That doesn't necessarily mean that the candidates picked are the best for the job, just that the candidates picked tend to be capable enough that they don't get killed in blow-out elections (1996 might be an exception to this, but the Internet Culture was still in its early stages at that point).

Of course, this only applies to the Presidential Races. With few exceptions, it doesn't apply to every little Congressional race.

Brett said...

Err, sorry. That last one by "guardsman bass" was by me, Anthony.

S.W. Anderson said...

It's ironic that Democrats and liberals have a rich history of proactively supporting humanitarian goals and initiatives dear to mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic church, and conservative Republicans mostly have lip service and posturing. Yet, evangelicals tilt heavily toward Republican conservatives.

It's especially ironic since for five recent years Republicans controlled the whole federal government and could've rammed through legislation outlawing abortion.

It's disheartening that Democratic candidates, one after another, get into events like Warren's seemingly oblivious to what Democrats who've gone before have done and said.

The question about when a baby has human rights was a perfect opening for Obama to mention Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, and how, beyond the right to life, there are rights to freedom from exploitation and deprivation. It was an opening for him to recall the line about lifting up the least among us, and Jesus' statement that what we do for those in need, we do for him.

The point being, of course, that while the Republican right pays great lip service to so-called pro-lifers (as if Democrats are somehow anti-life), once a baby is born, it's immediately on to rugged individualism and self-sufficiency. All quite inspiring, I'm sure, to an overwhelmed young woman short on family support, education, job skills and parenting skills, not to mention money to feed herself and her child, and for medical care.

There was a great opening there for Obama to challenge both the Christian right and Republican right on some of the verities they roll out so conveniently at election time, when doing so is useful to tearing down a conscientious Democrat, leaving them to revel in what they seem to consider their moral superiority. It's a shame he was so intent on making nice when he might've earned more respect from them by rattling their cage.

Anthony Palmer said...

Dr. King/Brett,

I've heard about the possibility that McCain heard the questions beforehand. But I don't think it matters because both candidates should have been able to anticipate being asked about abortion and gay rights. So Obama in particular should have had a better answer, as SWA pointed out. But I thought both candidates did fine.



I'm wondering why there's such a focus on evangelicals in general. Will there be a minority forum? How about a White forum? Or a women's forum?

I will agree that we need more discussion like this without the yelling and consisting of real questions.


To everyone,

I read that McCain actually voted to confirm the very judges he criticized (except Stevens). If he wouldn't have nominated Ginsburg, Breyer, and Souter, why did he vote to confirm them?

Thomas said...

There is a difference between nominating someone to be a Supreme Court justice and recognizing a person's judicial competence. I think that is why McCain might not have nominated those justices but he voted for them because he recognized their legal training and backgrounds were superior.

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

u grade easy , i would have given the both c-

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