Even if Obama supporters end up with a fair number of seats at the forum, the campaign’s communications team needs to be smarter than it was in 2008 about setting expectations. In the last campaign, the Obama team acted as if the Saddleback forum was just an ordinary campaign appearance at a neutral site instead of the first-ever presidential forum hosted by a Southern Baptist pastor for a conservative evangelical crowd. If Obama’s flacks had done their job, their spin to reporters would have been that Obama won just by showing up to the event and being willing to field questions. But they didn’t, and post-forum coverage focused on the difference between the slightly chilly reception the crowd gave Obama and the warm welcome that McCain enjoyed.
Finally, Obama should consider that Warren either lied about his plans for the 2008 forum or bowed to pressure from other conservatives regarding the topics up for discussion. In the week before the earlier event, Warren told TIME’s David van Biema that his questions would center on four areas: poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate change, and human rights. “There is no Christian religious test,” said Warren.
The night of forum, however, Warren stuck to a more conservative script, quizzing the candidates about gay marriage, judges, and abortion—and only briefly touching on poverty and climate change. As one progressive religious leader told me at the time: “They hadn’t done their research on Warren. Obama wasn’t prepared for the Saddleback thing at all, and Warren bushwhacked him.”
In the months following the forum, Obama aides didn’t bother to learn much more about Warren. That became clear when the pastor was invited to give a prayer at Obama’s Inauguration, and political liberals reacted with outrage, citing Warren’s endorsement of the anti-gay marriage Prop 8 in California, his controversial comments about homosexuality following the election, and a Fox News appearance in which he agreed that the President of Iran should be assassinated.