Thursday, April 5, 2007

More on Democrats and Evangelicals

I earlier wrote about the debate in political circles about whether it makes sense for Democrats to seek evangelical voters. I noted that Stuart Rothenberg had suggested not. It turns out that Mara Vanderslice and Eric Sapp, the consultants responsible for the Granholm and Strickland success with evangelicals, have responded to Rothenberg:


The central assumption behind Rothenberg's analysis is that Democrats don't stand a chance with evangelicals because all evangelicals care about is abortion and gay marriage. This simplistic view of a community numbering in the tens of millions contradicts the public developments within the evangelical community - such as the schism between Focus on the Family's James Dobson and the largest evangelical group in the country (the National Association of Evangelicals) over whether evangelicals should include the environment, poverty, and torture in their list of policy and voting priorities. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that evangelicals are not thrilled about the legacy of the Bush administration or the current Republican presidential frontrunners.

Perhaps most importantly, Rothenberg's assertions that there is little opportunity for Democrats to connect to these voters does not match the experience of the candidates with whom we worked.

In Ohio, Gov. Ted Strickland made faith outreach a priority from the beginning and won 44 percent of the white evangelical vote. Some might try to explain away Strickland's success as a product of his background in the ministry, however, in Michigan, Gov. Jennifer Granholm won 35 percent of the evangelical vote, 46 percent of the white Protestant vote and 47 percent of weekly churchgoers. Like Strickland, she's pro-choice and supports civil unions. Her victory followed a two-year outreach effort by the Michigan Democratic Party to build relationships with evangelical pastors and other religious leaders. One of the results of that effort was that a group of the same evangelicals, who Rothenberg implies should be "deeply suspicious" of Granholm, ended up drafting the Preamble to the Michigan Democratic Party platform.

There are other examples as well, but simply put, in races where Democrats made long-term, authentic and serious efforts to reach out to evangelicals, they made significant gains. It is true that similar gains were not realized by Democrats nationwide who did not make the same efforts ... but that just proves our point.

Read it all.

There is a spirited debate occuring on Street Prophets on this issue. On that blog, Father Dan has this response to Vanderslice and Sapp:

Actually, I'd say it doesn't help their case very much. It's true that evangelicals vote on more than abortion and homosexuality, though you'd never know it from the way their leaders talk. But unfortunately, the other issues they vote on also align them with the Republican party. To name just one example, evangelicals remain to this day the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq. And while I myself have speculated on what might result from fractures in the evangelical movement and their current disenchantment with Republican leadership, I would also note that none of these issues has yet resulted in political dividends.


Again, if there's math to demonstrate why pursuing these voters would be effective, I'll happily stand down. But at the moment, the safe bet seems to go after moderate Catholics.


Vanderslice and Sapp's own examples show why. It's great that Ted Strickland got 44% of the evangelical vote, and no doubt a good bit of that was the result of reaching out to evangelicals. But the fact is that he is a pastor from a denomination rich in evangelical tradition. He was also running against an Ohio GOP that had utterly and completely collapsed, and an opponent who seriously overreached in aligning himself with theocratic-minded megachurches. If anybody won Strickland that 44%, it was probably the wildcatting clergy of We Believe Ohio, who went toe-to-toe with Ken Blackwell's church supporters and challenged their right to define faith on their own terms.


As for Jennifer Granholm, well: 65% of evangelicals voted against her or for somebody else, as did 54% of white Protestants. Yet she won 47% of weekly churchgoers. So in a state like Michigan who does that leave? Perhaps black Protestants - i.e., the evangelicals who are already a part of the Democratic coalition. Or perhaps Catholics of whatever race, who outnumber any other Christian group by nearly 2-1.


Remind me why chasing conservative white evangelicals is supposed to be such a good deal for Dems?

My take? I agree with Vanderslice and Sapp that Rothenberg (and Father Dan) simply do not understand the diverse nature of the evangelical community. While there are plenty of evangelicals who are single-issue voters on abortion and gay rights, there are still plenty more for whom other issues such as human rights, jobs and the environment are also important. And most polls showing that evangelicals are moving away from support of the war in Iraq. We won't get these voters, however, by demonizing them or by falling to even make the effort.

Finally, remember that the goal in politics is not necessarily to win a majority of any group--it is rather to increase the percentage within that group as part of a larger appeal to gain victory.

What do you think?

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