I started focusing on the political process in the mid-to-late '80s. For as long as I've been involved, it has been generally accepted that Ronald Reagan's success was keyed to his ability to bring the three legs of the conservative movement to stand together -- the foreign policy, economic and social conservatives.
Today, I believe the Republican and Democrat establishments would love nothing more than for the social conservatives to sit down and shut up, but they know this demographic can still really impact an election.
It is harder for social conservatives to win elections by themselves these days. They have become so disillusioned and so misunderstood by the establishment of both parties that they tend not to get energized for elections anymore.
But when they are energized and they turn out across the country on Election Day, they are still one of the few demographics that can turn an election. Because they are Republican, Democrat, red, brown, yellow, black and white. You will find them everywhere.
They are young, old, rich and poor, from the north, south, east and west. This group of Republican and Democrat voters determined where they stood on various issues before polling told them the politically correct crowd despised them. They will not change their ideology for the sake of political correctness.
There are two primary issues that cut to the heart of social conservatives -- God and guns -- and not necessarily in that order.
As hard as it may be for some on the left to understand, law-abiding citizens don't own guns to rob banks and people, nor to look for someone to shoot. Those who do are bad people, and they would use knives, pitchforks, cars or any other object to carry out their evil intentions. That's why trying to blame guns for crime is like trying to blame chains for slavery.
Bad people will use whatever inanimate object they can get their hands on -- including their hands -- to do harm to other people. Contrary to the clumsy assertion of Sen. Barack Obama, law-abiding citizens own guns in spite of poor government, not because of poor government.
A second issue that the establishment can't get its arms around is the matter of one's personal faith, and its role in the public square.
As I have said before regarding people of faith: Faith navigates their politics. Politics doesn't navigate their faith.
People of faith are naturally concerned about taxes, health care, national defense and so many other issues beyond abortion or the family. They'll fight for better health care. They'll debate tax rates. If a candidate is on the "wrong" side of one of those issues, they can be forgiving. However, if a candidate is hostile to their faith, he or she will almost surely lose the faith voter. I remind you that people of faith cling to their faith in spite of poor government, not because of poor government.
Many refer to faith voters as "one issue" voters. But they are no different than the black community that will be hostile to parties or candidates who appear hostile to race issues.
Nine years ago this week, a couple of bad kids went on a shooting spree inside the walls of Columbine High School in suburban Denver.
Few care to recall that they used much more than guns to accomplish their evil intentions. Indeed, they compiled an arsenal of deadly contraband, much of it home-made. Guns were highlighted in this case.
In Columbine's aftermath, Rep. Patrick Kennedy -- who was the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at the time -- acknowledged that his party had written off rural America due to the gun issue.
Not many years later, a Democratic presidential hopeful named Howard Dean inartfully reached out to this demographic by claiming the person with the gun rack in the rear window of his truck should be voting Democratic. As of this writing, the party of Howard Dean, who is now Democratic National Committee chairman, is still trying to figure out how to reach gun owners.
Contrary to the wishes of leaders such as Dean, Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton and some in my own party, these values voters -- which include men and women of faith who rightfully and lawfully own guns -- will not go away quietly. Any candidate who wants to win elections needs to resolve himself or herself to that reality.
J.C. Watts (JCWatts01@jcwatts.com) is chairman of J.C. Watts Companies, a business consulting group. He is former chairman of the Republican Conference of the U.S. House, where he served as an Oklahoma representative from 1995 to 2002. He writes twice monthly for the Review-Journal.