There is a debate occurring in political circles about whether Democrats have any hope of gaining the votes of Evangelicals. No one is saying that a majority of Evangelical voters will vote Democratic--the issue is whether Democrats can make gains with these voters. Stuart Rothenberg, one of the best political analysts to be found, is skeptical, based largely on the lack of any movement in the 2006 midterm elections:
"The GOP percentage among white evangelicals dropped by 4 points from 2004 to 2006, from 74 percent to 70 percent, according to exit polls. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ showing inched up to 28 percent from 25 percent.Given the strong Democratic year and the huge Republican advantage with white evangelicals, the Democrats’ gain was unimpressive. The 2006 midterm elections were so stunningly good for Democrats that all voter groups moved toward the Democratic Party last year."
I am with Amy Sullivan on this debate. When I ran for Congress in 1994, our polling data showed a surprising receptiveness among Evangelical voters to Democratic candidates. These voters are not all single-issue voters on issues like abortion and gay rights. The problem is that in election after election, Democratic candidates have either ignored these voters or expressed outright hostility and disdain for them. Indeed, I am doubtful if most Democratic consultants could even name the leading Evangelical pastors and churches in the district or state they are working in. It's no surprise that Evangelicals return the favor with their votes.
"In fact, the numbers suggest no such thing. The only numbers Rothenberg cites are the meager gains Democrats made nationally among evangelicals in November 2006. But no one - and certainly not the Democratic religion consultants he criticizes in the piece - has claimed that Democrats made great strides among evangelicals nationally last year. Indeed, it would be surprising if they had, given that the party made virtually no special effort to court evangelical voters.
"What Democrats like Mara Vanderslice and Eric Sapp (and, to be fair, me) have said is that in the states where Democrats spent a year or two establishing relationships with evangelical leaders and voters, candidates did make significant gains. In Michigan and Ohio, for instance, the Democratic gubernatorial candidates nearly split the evangelical vote. And, contrary to Rothenberg's assertion that evangelicals won't vote Democratic because they vote based on issues (which he defines narrowly as gay marriage and abortion), those winning Democratic candidates were pro-choice and pro-gay rights. . . .
Well, Vanderslice and Sapp may not be pollsters, but they are evangelicals, so they know a thing or two about the community. And they know that while a majority of evangelicals may decide to stick with the GOP in the hopes of changing the party from the inside, it's more than possible for Democrats to pick up enough evangelical voters to put them over the top. Republicans did the same thing courting socially conservative African-American voters in 2004. It works where Democrats have tried it. So why on earth would you hold up cases in which Democrats haven't tried it as proof that it can't work?"
In light of this history, courting Evangelical voters takes work. but it can be done. In the Ohio Governor's race, the Democrat, Ted Strickland won as many Evangelical voters as the Republican, Ken Blackwell. And in Michigan, pro-choice liberal Democrat Jennifer Granholm won 35% of the white Evangelical vote. Given the results in Arizona, I would not be surprised if Governor Janet Napolitano similarly carried a large percentage of the Evangelical vote. This article gives some details about how these victories among Evangelicals were achieved.
Politics is a game of addition, not division. It behooves the Democrats to learn from the lessons in Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere, and aggressive court Evangelical voters.
"Daniel R. Lockwood, president of Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary in Portland, Ore., said he has seen a "sea change" among his students, who are looking beyond conservative issues such as abortion and homosexuality to the environment, children with HIV/AIDS and the poor.
"'More and more, students are very interested in social justice and issues often associated with the middle and the left,' Lockwood said, "and the war is a piece of that.'"