Murky Math: Why Ralph Reed’s Latest Political Claims Don’t Add Up

Ralph Reed has a history of exaggerating what his groups will do or even what they are capable of doing.

My wife and I are fans of the Sunday New York Times, and yesterday as we were enjoying the paper over a leisurely breakfast, she nudged me to make note of a story on the front page. I looked and was a little taken aback. Glaring up at me was a photo of an old Americans United nemesis – Ralph Reed. The headline read, “An Evangelical Is Back From Exile, Lifting Romney.”

Some of you may recall Reed from his days as a political operative for TV preacher Pat Robertson. In the early 1990s he was something of a wunderkind, and journalists never failed to mention how someone with such a boyish appearance could run a hardball political operation.

Reed led Robertson’s Christian Coalition for several years and then departed to start a political consulting firm near Atlanta. He worked on both George W. Bush campaigns, assisted other candidates and did some lobbying. All the while, Reed had his eye on public office himself.

It didn’t quite work out. Reed ran for lieutenant governor of Georgia in 2006, probably figuring it would be his first rung on the political ladder. The voters had other ideas. Reed’s campaign came crashing down in spectacular flames after his ties to disgraced casino lobbyist Jack Abramoff became an issue. Reed was supposed to win the Republican primary in a cakewalk. He ended up losing by 12 points.

Reed tried his hand at writing a political thriller. It flopped. So Reed returned to his roots and launched a new Religious Right group called the Faith & Freedom Coalition. Reed’s political resurrection was the focus of the Times story.

When he ran the Christian Coalition, Reed had a history of exaggerating his influence. (The less charitable might say he told big, fat lies.) It seems he’s up to his old tricks. The Times reported that Reed has compiled the “largest-ever database of reliably conservative religious voters.” He told the newspaper that his organization will call 17.1 million registered voters in 15 key states and that two million people will receive personal visits.

Of special interest to me was Reed’s claim that the Faith & Freedom Coalition will distribute 25 million voter guides in 117,000 churches. Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.

The Times dutifully reported all of this. Yet a little simple arithmetic shows that it’s almost certainly not true. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, there are estimated to be 350,000 religious congregations in the United States, many of which would have nothing to do with Reed’s group.

A large number of Christian churches are affiliated with mainline Protestant denominations. Reed’s group has no headway with these churches. They disagree with his agenda. Catholic and Orthodox churches account for about 24,000 congregations. The Catholic bishops decided years ago to keep voter guides issued by advocacy groups out of the pews.

Obviously most Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. congregations are not going to help Reed out. That leaves him with evangelical congregations. To be sure, there are many of them in America, but even here Reed would encounter difficulties.

All signs indicate that evangelicals are getting weary of the constant political drumbeat. Polls show that most Americans – especially younger churchgoers – attend services for spiritual reasons, not to hear political rants.

But let’s say by some miracle there were 117,000 churches friendly to Reed’s group. The amount of work required to coordinate with them would be staggering – not to mention extremely expensive. One would have to spend years laying the groundwork, yet Reed’s Coalition, until recently, had an annual budget of less than $1 million.

Publicly available documents show that the budget for Reed’s group jumped from $743,015 in 2009 to about $5.5 million in 2010. Reed claims he’ll spend $10-12 million this year. Obviously some well-heeled right-wing fat cats are pouring money into the effort. Reed will clearly connect with some voters and churches, but he’s not going to reach 33 percent of entire American religious community.

I’m also suspicious of the claim that the Coalition will contact 17 million voters. Reed may have access to some high-tech toys, but that number is more than 10 percent of all who voted in 2008. Again, meaningful contact with that many people – as opposed to just sending them a spam e-mail – would cost a lot of money.

And, as strange as this may sound, $10 million isn’t much in a modern political campaign. Analysts say the total cost of this campaign for both parties could top $3 billion. (Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate, donated $10 million to a Romney Super-PAC in one day.)

None of this means that the Religious Right isn’t a powerful political force or that it doesn’t have influence. Several groups are urging pastors to jump into partisan politics by endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. That’s one reason why Americans United recently mailed letters educating about what’s legal and what’s not concerning political activity to 60,000 houses of worship.

It is important to keep things in perspective, however. Reed has a history of exaggerating what his groups will do or even what they are capable of doing. Rather than just write down and print his claims, journalists should engage in some basic fact checking. If they did, they would quickly see that Reed’s numbers simply don’t add up.