Bush Fever: Amish and Old Order Mennonites in the 2004 Presidential Election

Article excerpt

Abstract: The 2004 presidential election stirred considerable controversy among Old Order people in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Republican activists in these states aggressively sought to register Old Order people. Previous studies of Old Order voting have rarely if ever provided accurate evidence of the registration and voting patterns of these people. Using interviews, public voting records and excerpts from Amish writings, the authors trace the debate about voting in Old Order communities. They also describe the Republican campaign to register Old Order voters. In the Lancaster (Pa.) area the Old Order Amish were more likely to cast a ballot than the Old Order Mennonites. The results show that voting in the 2004 election varied considerably from state to state as well as among congregations in Old Order settlements. A vision to improve moral conditions in the larger society appeared to motivate many Old Order voters.

BUSH FEVER

The 2004 presidential race between President George W. Bush and Senator John F. Kerry was a spirited contest. (1) With early opinion polls showing a tight race, Democratic and Republican campaigns commenced well before the traditional election season. Party activists aggressively searched for new voters, especially in the crucial swing states that could determine the presidency. Two key states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, held about half of the national Amish population. (2)

The G.O.P., scouring the country for unregistered groups who shared the Bush-Cheney accent on traditional values, targeted evangelical Christians, Second Amendment proponents and anti-abortion advocates.

Republican strategists soon added new groups that supported the Bush--Cheney campaign's interpretation of traditional values: Amish and Old Order Mennonites. At least a few Old Order members responded with enthusiasm. One Amishman, Eli Fisher, for example, gleefully noted by early August that the Lancaster (Pa.) Amish were "swept up with Bush fever." (3) Explaining the support for Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, Fisher said, "We hate that abortion issue. We're totally against it. And as far as gay issues, that's [sic] completely contrary to the Bible." (4)

Already in the 2000 presidential election campaign, Republican officials had urged Lancaster's Amish to register and vote for George W. Bush. Fisher attended the Bush inauguration in January 2001, which in his words was "a moving experience." The crusade to capture the Amish vote, however, greatly intensified in the 2004 election. Several articles on "the Amish vote" in the national press suggested a massive Amish turnout might influence the election's outcome in the swing states. Was there a major Old Order turnout? Did Bush fever change the election?

In this paper we explore several questions regarding the Amish and Old Order Mennonite participation in the 2004 presidential election: 1) Was the Pennsylvania G.O.P. successful in registering more Amish and Old Order Mennonite voters in Lancaster County than in previous elections? 2) Did registered individuals turn out to vote? 3) Did Lancaster County Amish and Old Order Mennonites register and vote at similar levels? 4) To what extent were Old Orders in other communities energized by the campaign? 5) Was Old Order participation in the 2004 election an anomaly or a new trend in American politics?

The sources for our account of the 2004 election include interviews, letters by writers in Old Order publications, media reports and voter registration databases for Pennsylvania and Ohio. Although our primary focus is on the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, we also provide data on two Old Order Mennonite groups in Lancaster; Amish voters in Holmes County, Ohio; and other Old Order individuals beyond Pennsylvania and Ohio. (5) The two Old Order Mennonite groups are the car-driving Hornings (Weaverland Conference) and the horse-and-buggy-driving Wengers (Groffdale Conference). …