This article appears in the February 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
During the closing weeks of the 2006 election, the mainstream media expected Democrats to win a larger share of the evangelical Christian vote than they did in 2004. Pundits credited aggressive Democratic entreaties on issues such as global warming and poverty with the putative surge in evangelicals who are willing to rethink their allegiance with the GOP. A late October Newsweek poll indicated only 60 percent of white evangelicals, “the cornerstone of the Republican base,” would support the Republican candidate in their district.
Stories about Democratic Party outreach to evangelical Christians were omnipresent in the media. Amy Sullivan authored a cover story for the May 29 edition of the New Republic with the juicy subtitle, “The Christian Right Moves Left.” Steve Waldman, editor of the nonpartisan webzine Beliefnet, argued in Slate that the religious left “is fruitful and has multiplied.”
Religious left voter mobilization groups–think MoveOn.org at prayer–distributed hundreds of thousands of flyers in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia during the election, and had no trouble drumming up media coverage while they were at it. Their flyers dismissed the “narrow agenda” of the religious right (abortion, gay marriage) and advocated a “broader” definition of “moral values.” Serious Democratic candidates broke their radio silence and began to advertise on Christian stations this cycle, an underrated campaign weapon Republicans have leveraged for years.
As you might expect, the media were almost unable to contain their glee upon seeing the Democrats win both houses of Congress, and with the help of some religious voters, to boot. Even before the last polls closed ABC News ran a story online under the headline, “Losing Faith in the GOP.” “Narrowing ‘God gap’ raises eyebrows” sang another headline. Their self-fulfilling prophecy had come to pass.
Or had it?
A second, calmer look at last November’s results tells a different story. Evangelical Christians voted Republican in huge numbers again this cycle. And Democrats’ biggest gains came from non-Christians and secular voters. Moreover, while it is true that a significant portion of regular churchgoing Christians shifted their support toward the Democrats this election cycle, it appears they did so because the Democrats–not religious voters themselves–changed their ways. “Those issues didn’t matter,” says Steve Waldman, speaking about poverty and global warming. Instead, Waldman believes many Democrats now “get it” with respect to the role traditional moral values play in elections.
Seventy-two percent of white evangelical Protestants voted for Republican candidates for Congress and 27 percent voted for Democratic candidates in 2006. In 2004 those numbers were 75 percent and 24 percent, respectively. In short, despite a slight swing in favor of Democrats, the GOP’s political base held. In fact, it held even in the important races. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, evangelicals “gave strong support–about two-thirds or more–to Republican Senate candidates in several key states, including Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, and Virginia. In Missouri, for example, incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Talent earned the same share of the white evangelical vote (74 percent) in his loss as Sen. Kit Bond did in his 2004 re-election victory.
White mainline Protestants and white Catholics who attend church at least once a week gave majorities of their support to Republican candidates. While GOP margins were down among these groups compared to the 2004 election, they were in line with GOP margins of support in 2000 and 2002, years in which the Republicans maintained and even strengthened their majorities on Capitol Hill. American churchgoers of all Christian denominations remain a reliable Republican voting bloc.
“The exit polls clearly show that the Democrats’ gains in 2006 came largely among non-Christian and secular voters,” reads a report from Pew titled, “Religion and the 2006 Elections.” Indeed, Democrats saw their biggest gains among the 15 percent of the electorate that never attends church and the 25 percent who attend church “a few times a year.” Democrats saw double-digit gains in both these groups over their performance in 2002. Jews swung in favor of Democrats by a whopping 25 percent over the same period.
Some Roman Catholic independents swung to the Democrats but as Pew points out, those that swung had a greater likelihood to skip Mass. White Catholics who attend Mass weekly voted in favor of Republicans by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent.
Because the GOP base held and less religiously committed voters, secularists, and non-Christians swung so heavily in favor of Democratic candidates, the “God gap” has actually widened over the past two years, not narrowed. It remains the case, as was true in 2004, that one of the most reliable predictors of a voter’s behavior on Election Day is his behavior on Sunday morning. Unfortunately for Republicans, that means that if a voter’s Sunday morning routine involves listening to George Stephanopoulos rather than Father John or Pastor Bob, he is increasingly more likely to vote Democrat.
Is there a connection between Democratic outreach efforts to white evangelicals and the boost given them by non-Christian and less religiously committed voters? Possibly. As paradoxical as that may sound, consider the GOP’s saga with black voters. For over a decade, Republicans have aggressively reached out to blacks, attending NAACP conventions, posing in photo-ops with black church leaders, and so forth. But for a slight bump in black voter support for Bush in 2004 (which may have been a historical anomaly), they have almost nothing to show for it. But here’s the thinly veiled secret: These publicized outreach efforts were never intended to win black votes. Instead, they were designed to answer doubts among white moderate suburbanites about the GOP’s commitment to fairness and racial justice.
A similar dynamic may be at play with the Democrats’ new faith push. A pre-election poll by Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville showed that the number one doubt most Americans had about voting for the Democratic candidate in their district was that the candidate was “for abortion and gay marriage.” As Beliefnet‘s Waldman said to me, “There has been a sense that Democrats have been so beyond the pale on [values] issues that there was this obstacle to get many people to even consider voting for Democrats.” But, he points out, by making such a public display of their newfound desire to work with Americans of faith, Democrats may have assuaged some of those concerns among less religiously committed voters.
And it didn’t hurt that the Democrats actually allowed some of their culturally conservative candidates to flower this election cycle. It wasn’t just extravagant speeches at mega-churches that helped Democrats overcome voters’ doubts. More than a few successful Democratic candidates expressed right-of-center views on cultural issues on the campaign trail: Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Heath Shuler in North Carolina, Bill Ritter in Colorado.
In an interview conducted before he won the Democratic primary for governor, Ritter stated his position on abortion: “I am pro-life as a matter of personal faith. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, and the decision of whether or not to legalize abortions reverts to the states, and if the Colorado legislature passes a bill banning abortion, I will sign the bill only if it provides protections for women who are victims of rape or incest, or to protect the life of the mother.” Right down to the life of the mother, Ritter’s is the cut-and-paste Republican position. It is unlikely he would have had much of a career under previous recent Democratic Party special interest regimes.
So what role should faith in public life have in the GOP’s comeback plans, if any at all? The amateurish response would be to build some distance between the Republican Party and religious conservatives in the hopes of winning back some non-religious voters. This would be a terrible mistake and would cost the GOP some important elements of its base. What is more, all the data suggests important subgroups of voters–religious or not–swung to the Democrats over issues such as the Iraq war and congressional corruption, not “religious right overreach” as an American correspondent for the Economist recently suggested. It stands to reason, therefore, that the GOP should move beyond its solid base of evangelical support by altering its appeal on those two issues. The GOP’s relationship with Americans of faith may be its last remaining strength.