John McCain may have one last, best hope for winning the White House: the Amish. McCain, as we all know, needs to win the Midwest battleground states of Ohio, Indiana, and especially Pennsylvania, where’s he gone all-in to beat Barack Obama as other states have fallen out of reach. The Amish have an estimated 231,000 members conveniently concentrated in those three states—there are more than 50,000 Amish in Pennsylvania alone and slightly more in Ohio. McCain and Sarah Palin are coming to Lancaster, Pa., on Tuesday.
Amish voters, when they do take to the polls, are believed to be nearly 100 percent Republican because of their pro-life sentiments. There is no edict preventing individuals from voting, and George W. Bush aggressively courted Amish support in 2004 as part of a broader push to woo religious voters. In addition to assigning thousands of volunteers to Lancaster County, Pa., which has one of the largest Amish communities in the country, Bush took time at a campaign stop to approach Amish residents and answer questions about himself.
Peter Mast, 48, an Old Order Amish, could not remember the Democratic nominee’s name. He is not planning to vote and few of his colleagues wished to discuss the election.
“One gentlemen asked him, ‘How do you do this job?’ and President Bush said he prays a lot,” said Katherine Wood Jacobs, a Republican committeewoman for Paradise Township, Pa. “Something like that is an important answer to them. After that they got more invigorated, more interested in registering. I had Amish neighbors asking me for forms in order to vote.”
Though there is little hard data from 2004. The Amish may have given Bush as many as several thousand votes; Bush lost Pennsylvania to John Kerry by just over two percentage points.
If he’s going to win over the Amish bloc, McCain will have some work to do. In Gambier, Ohio, where a large community of Old Order Amish resides, Amish interest in the campaign is minimal despite the area’s prominence in the election. A block from the Kenyon College campus, now papered with literature inviting students to call in for an upcoming phone conference with Obama, Peter Mast, 48, an Old Order Amish, could not remember the Democratic nominee’s name. He is not planning to vote and few of his colleagues wished to discuss the election. Female members would silently point to their husbands when asked their opinion on the campaign (or anything else).
“We just pray to God that he puts the right man in office for our own good,” Mast told me. “We can only try to put up with His president.”
Mast could not recall whom Bush defeated in 2000 or which party is currently in power in Canada, where he was born and raised.
Ruth Irene Garrett, 34, a former member of an Amish township in Iowa, said that while she knew Ronald Reagan was the president when she was growing up, she never knew his opponent in 1984 or any of either man’s policies. “I never even heard the pledge of allegiance or the national anthem until after I left,” Garrett said. “[The Amish] are completely cut off from the outside world.”
Democratic officials in Lancaster County are convinced that the “Bush effect” is a one-time fluke. “We don’t see the same kind of excitement there with McCain,” said Jane Shull, a media relations coordinator for the Lancaster County Democratic Committee. She added that increased opposition to the Iraq war among the pacifist Amish has helped temper their enthusiasm for politics since the last election.
Should McCain fail to win Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Indiana by small margins, his biggest mistake may have been going after the Amish too late: Registration deadlines have passed in all three states. Thanks to Bush’s success in expanding voter rolls in 2004, however, he may already have a significant, if unknown, number of registered voters with which to work. In a race in which McCain has bent over backward in recent weeks to distance himself from Bush, he may lose the election by failing to learn one practical lesson from the president: A vote’s a vote, even if it comes from a man in a buggy.