Friday, December 31, 2004

GOP's Soft Sell Swayed the Amish (

GOP's Soft Sell Swayed the Amish (
GOP's Soft Sell Swayed the Amish
Unlikely Voters Cast Lot With Bush
By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page A03


Early on a pale blue morning, a horse-drawn buggy clop-clopped along a farmland stretch of Route 340. A lone little Chevy compact came toward it at a Sunday pace.

From an intersection, a black SUV the size of an Indian elephant barreled up to the buggy's back, passing with a quick jerk that nearly clipped the oncoming car -- and the horse's nose.

That's Pennsylvania's Amish country, where the 19th and 21st centuries coexist, commingle and collide on a regular basis. The Amish may hold fast to their plain ways, rejecting cars, indoor electricity, home phones and televisions. But contact with the outside world is unavoidable. Malls stand on land where corn used to grow, tourists run around the village streets, and even the old unspoken rule -- leave the Amish alone -- is gone, left in the dust of the presidential campaign, when the Republicans came calling for votes.

Yes, the Republicans, true to their vow to leave no vote unwooed, came to Lancaster County hoping to win over the famously reclusive Old Order Amish -- who shun most modern ways -- along with their slightly less-strict brethren, the Mennonites. Democrats laughed at the very idea. The Amish had no use for politics. Were the Republicans that desperate? But the GOP effort, underscored by President Bush's meeting with some Amish families in early July, did the trick.

"Yup, we voted this time," said an elder Old Order Amish man approached at his home-based quilt shop on Route 340. He had a beard that straggled down to his chest and bright blue eyes. His first name, he said, is Amos, but in keeping with the Amish edict against calling attention to oneself, he would not give his last name.

"I didn't vote for the last 30 years," he said, puffing on a pipe. "But Bush seemed to have our Christian principles."

Outside looking in, it makes sense that the Amish would pay little attention to national politics. They have their own schools (formal education for eight years), their own churches (or religious gatherings, at one another's homes) and their own rules. This has worked for them. The population of Amish and Mennonites, at more than 20,000 in Lancaster County, keeps growing.

But it seems the outside world, the "English" world, as the Amish call it, has been creeping in too closely for the plain people not to worry. In recent months, reports of child abuse in Amish country have made local papers and national news. The reality show "Amish in the City" has brought a slew of curiosity seekers asking all kinds of questions. (Do you take showers? Read newspapers? Ride buses? Yes, yes and yes.) And the plain people have daily worries as well. "We've been worrying about liquor and beer being sold in the grocery stores," said Sam, a gazebo maker and writer who said he would "get into trouble" if his last name was printed.

"We were down," Sam said, "and when the president visited, it cheered us right up. We got a firsthand look at him, and it really warmed our hearts."

In short, as Sam and half a dozen other Amish men explained (women were hard to find, and harder to talk to), Bush won votes with a time-honored campaign convention: He showed up. On July 9 his campaign bus rolled down Route 340, hoping to fire up the base in Republican Lancaster County. The Amish, watching the spectacle from the road, became part of it.

"We came out," Amos said. "We were about 70 people. One of his security said he wanted to meet us and invited us to meet with him across the road at Lapp's Electric."

"They knew we didn't like publicity," said Amos, smiling at the recollection. "So the president met with us all in an office at Lapp's. He shook everyone's hand -- even the littlest ones in their mother's arms -- and he told us all he hoped we would exercise our right and vote."

Did Bush ask them to vote for him?

"Nope," Amos said. "That's another thing we liked about him."

Not to mention, the 4,000 Republican volunteers who blanketed Lancaster County for months and visited the fairs and farm auctions in Amish country talking up the president's Christian values. That helped them think abortion might be outlawed, Sam said. Thinking of Bush's Christian values even helped with their questions about the carnage in Iraq.

And so, while Bush lost Pennsylvania by more than 120,000 votes, he nearly halved his losing margin from 2000. In large part, that was because of the GOP's push among rural voters. Here in Lancaster County, where the party set a goal of besting the Democrat by 70,000 votes (or about 10,000 more than in 2000), Bush ended up winning by 70,896. Several hundred of those votes came from men in suspenders and black suits and women in bonnets and wide-skirt black dresses. Republicans registered more than 300 new voters in each of three mostly Amish districts. In Leacock Township, the GOP nearly doubled its voter rolls, from 1,000 to 1,800, with all but a handful of the new voters being Amish or Mennonite.

Just as everyone predicted the plain folks would not vote, the postmortems all suggested the Amish vote was a fluke. Amos -- another Amos, who sells wooden toys and other Amish crafts at a roadside stand -- said that bothers him. He could see more plain people voting next time, he said, "for another candidate with good morals."

Sam, the carpenter-journalist, had read reports suggesting that the GOP manipulated the Amish. That did not sit well at all. "They didn't come here just recruiting the Amish," he said. "They were trying to get anybody to vote."

The Amish, in turn, voted with pure hearts, he said, asking for nothing in return.

Or almost nothing.

"We're trying to get tickets for the inauguration," he said. "Do you know how to go about getting those?"

-- Evelyn Nieves

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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