The news from Politico (and Gallup) is not good today. All the work of the past year has not (apparently) moved the dial when it comes to the religious voter.
The Gallup Poll now shows Obama backed by 28 percent of white voters who attend church at least once a week — a group that makes up a roughly a third of all voters — which would be no improvement from the 29 percent of these voters who, according to exit polls, backed Democrats John Kerry and Al Gore in the previous two presidential election.
There is something of a body blow to this, given the work that folks like Amy Sullivan and Mara Vanderslice have done, as well as the more explicit outreach efforts of the Democrats generally. Has nothing really changed? Pulling apart the article and looking at other recent data suggest that more be happening here than the top line numbers suggest.
Perceptions change. As the article notes
Democrats have made some gains in improving the public’s perception of their openness to religious Americans. Some 38 percent of Americans believe the Democratic Party is “generally friendly toward religion,” up from a low point of 26 percent in 2006, according to the annual August Pew Religion and Public Life Survey[.]
The true significance of such a move lies in the broader move of the Democratic party to the center out of a sectarian stance. The danger of its secularity had been that party would be seen as representing a niche in American society rather than the as a coalition of various subgroups. Ironically, the ascendency of true believers in the Republican party seems to be propelling that party into a similar sectarian stance. Too intense a religious commitment may be as dangerous as too little for a party aspiring to national leadership.
Moderate Shifts. As David Kuhn reports, occasional believers and Catholics are both showing shifts in allegiance to the Democrats. Here, the increasing Evangelical profile in the GOP works against it – groups that would otherwise share in their values nonetheless do not share the sociological identity of Evangelicals. So even if the sectarian box holds, others in the religious community seem to be abandoning it.
But the real give away in all this is the noting that the Democrats have stopped losing. The pattern of losing weekly church goers by increasingly larger margins has now flattened. This suggests again that outreach efforts have been successful at least in stopping the bleeding. The secular story is no longer seen as a self-defeating behavior that it has been where secular stances lead to rejection lead to secular stances. The bleeding has stopped.
But that’s not all the story.
Some erosion reported
More intriguing are other recent polls. Wednesday, Sarah Pulliam reported that Obama was winning 31 percent of Evangelicals in Ohio and Pennsylvania, in contrast to the 22 percent share in 2004. There does appear to be some significant erosion going on.
A second mark of erosion was in the AP/GFK Roper poll of two weeks ago. While most commentary noted the out-sized makeup of the sample (44 percent Evangelical, double the weight in the population), missing was what this suggested about the make up of the Evangelical vote itself. If Evangelicals were voting at the same weight as in 2004 (~25%), then non-evangelical share of the GOP would be approximately 24% of the GOP. Are the economic conservatives really that reduced? Cross-tabs report a moderation in political belief that suggests a wider range of Republicans. So here’s the point: if the McCain vote includes a greater portion of these moderates then the Evangelicals in the sample must be giving more than 25% of their vote to the Dems.
While the conservatives will keep pointing to the resistance among Evangelicals to the Democrats, driven by abortion, such a view ignores the impacts of what is going on.
The conservatives weaken. The first impact will also be the most obvious: even from 22 to 31 percent, the shift represents a net three percent shift in the D/R split. In tight races, this has an obvious impact. Presently, the numbers from Iowa and Ohio alike seem to testify to the reality of such a shift.
Increased Evangelical presence. The increased presence of Evangelicals in the Democratic coalition functions to increase voice of evangelicals within the party. Ending or at least, reducing the alienation between Evangelicals an the Democrats helps limit the easy militant secularity at work in the progressive reaches of the Democratic coalition. By reducing the occasions of offense, the party increases its attractiveness. This is a virtuous circle.
More diverse candidates. We’re already seeing this. The rapprochement with the believing community has an indirect impact in the recruiting of candidates. This is certainly the case in Kent County. Democrats with strong religious profiles such as David LaGrand, Bob Synk (CC-19) and Bruce Hawley (SH-73) not only find a home in the party but enjoy its support. Again, the presence of strongly religious candidates in turn increases the likelihood that we will see more (and more voters will see the party as favorable to religion). Once more, a virtuous circle.
And the big impact . .
The increased presence of Evangelicals, social conservatives and weekly attenders creates the possibility that the Party will touch the “third rail” of the Right: abortion. As John Green, of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life notes,
“What we could be seeing is that comfort and campaigning only go so far, and that ultimately it’s substance that matters to these voters.”
And here’s the possibilty: the action of reaching out, the rhetoric, and the subtle shift of the actual coalition make-up all argue for a different approach to abortion, one based on an explicit strategy of reduction. If that is pursued and actionable policies identified, then reaching out of Obama and others will look less like a futile appeal, and more like the seeds for an abiding change in our culture.