How To Eat An Elephant

The Christian Coalition's Precinct-Based Political Strategy

Although he's only 25 years old, Chuck Anderson is well on the way to becoming a player in Texas politics. As the executive director of the Texas Christian Coalition, Anderson oversees the distribution of millions of voter guides and tries to shape Christian fundamentalists into a disciplined voting bloc on behalf of right-wing candidates.

Christian Coalition chapters are in disarray in many states, plagued by dwindling budgets and an exodus of activists. But the group remains influential in Texas, and, if Coalition founder Pat Robertson has his way, that state will become the model for the other 49 to follow.

The lanky and bespectacled Anderson looks more like an eager-to-please Boy Scout than a hardball political operator. Although his session during the Coalition's October "Road to Victory" Conference was titled "Local Chapter Organization," it was more about how to keep local precincts in the GOP column than how to form Coalition affiliates.

The key to effective political organizing, Anderson said, is to identify every political precinct in your county and then recruit 10 "pro-life" activists to work in each one.

"I ask a simple question, 'How do you eat an elephant?' One bite at a time," he said. "And when we think about the 150,000 precincts across America, that seems like an insurmountable task....But if you take on your county with your 30 to 50...precincts...and put together a team of people to help you out, a person in each precinct, a person in each church, we can make some big things happen." 

Although Coalition leaders have denied that their main activity is political organizing, Anderson described CC chapters as completely political entities. They exist, he said, to locate, educate and activate "Christian voters." He pointed out that only 50 percent of all Americans over the age of 18 are registered to vote and only 50 percent of those registered go to the polls. In primary elections, he said, turnout can be even lower.

"With these low numbers, we can have an impact," Anderson said.

Organizing through churches, Anderson said, is crucial, urging chapter activists to work closely with pastors and influential church members to make sure Coalition voter guides are distributed on election day. He cautioned against simply dropping off the guides at churches, saying, "Nothing happens with that."

Many of Anderson's ideas resurfaced during a session titled "Organizing Precincts" that took place immediately after his presentation. Drew McKissick, a political consultant and South Carolina Christian Coalition activist, told attendees that the key to victory for candidates is to identify the precincts in the county with the most conservatives (a term Coalition activists use as a synonym for Republicans) as well as the swing precincts and focus on these when canvassing for votes.

"Our goal," McKissick said, "is to turn Christians out of the churches and into the precincts."

When the Coalition was formed 10 years ago, founder Pat Robertson promoted a precinct-based model of political action much like what Anderson and McKissick described. But the group soon abandoned it in favor of a church-based model that called for distributing millions of its voter guides through conservative churches.

Although the Coalition still plans to distribute voter guides in the pews, the re-emphasis on political precincts represents a significant shift. Why is the Coalition returning to an old tactic? It may be a tacit admission that the voter-guides-in-churches strategy has not been as successful as the group had hoped .

It's also possible that not enough churches are playing ball with the Coalition.  McKissick hinted this may be the case when he admitted that Americans United's efforts to alert houses of worship about the perils of partisan politicking have worked.

"They [pastors] get scared off by organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State who write nasty letters to them telling them, 'If you hand out those voter guides, your tax status is going to be revoked and all sorts of terrible things are going to happen to you,'" McKissick said. "So it's not enough to just focus church by church by church because all of the people who go to these churches live in a precinct somewhere....The challenge for our church liaisons is to contact people in those churches and make sure they're registered to vote, find out what precinct they live in and give them over to the local precinct captain of the Christian Coalition. And that helps you build a county chapter."