Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Can Democrats Peel Off Evangelicals from the Republicans --
"Amy Sullivan writes about a Democrat-led effort to allow Bible classes in Alabama schools which is being blocked by Republicans.


The holy skirmish down in Alabama, with its “GOP blocks votes on Bible class bill” headlines, may seem like just a one-time, up-is-down, oddity. But it's really the frontline of a larger war to keep Democrats from appealing to more moderate evangelical voters. American politics is so closely divided that if a political party peels off a few percentage points of a single big constituency, it can change the entire electoral map. To take the most recent example, African Americans, who represent 11 percent of the electorate, cast 88 percent of their ballots for Democrats nationally. But Bush was able to get those numbers down to 84 percent in key states like Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2004—and kept the White House as a result. Republican strategists recognized that a significant number of black voters are very conservative on social issues but have stayed with the Democratic Party because of its reputation for being friendlier to racial minorities. The GOP didn't need a strategy to sway the entire black community; it just needed to pick off enough votes to put the party over the top.

Democrats could similarly poach a decisive percentage of the GOP's evangelical base. In the last election, evangelicals made up 26 percent of the electorate, and 78 percent of them voted for Bush. That sounds like a fairly inviolate bloc. And, indeed, the conservative evangelicals for whom abortion and gay marriage are the deciding issues are unlikely to ever leave the Republican Party. But a substantial minority of evangelical voters—41 percent, according to a 2004 survey by political scientist John Green at the University of Akron—are more moderate on a host of issues ranging from the environment to public education to support for government spending on anti-poverty programs. Broadly speaking, these are the suburban, two-working-parents, kids-in-public-school, recycle-the-newspapers evangelicals. They may be pro-life, but it's in a Catholic, “seamless garment of life” kind of way. These moderates have largely remained in the Republican coalition because of its faith-friendly image. A targeted effort by the Democratic Party to appeal to them could produce victories in the short term: To win the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry needed just 59,300 additional votes in Ohio—that's four percent of the total evangelical vote in the state, or approximately 10 percent of Ohio's moderate evangelical voters. And if the Democratic Party changed its reputation on religion, the result could alter the electoral map in a more significant and permanent way.

That's why, insiders say, the word has gone forth from the Republican National Committee to defeat Democratic efforts to reclaim religion. Republicans who disregard the instructions and express support for Democratic efforts are swiftly disciplined. At the University of Alabama, the president of the College Republicans was forced to resign after she endorsed the Bible legislation. A few states away, a Missouri Republican who sponsored a Bible literacy bill came under criticism from conservatives for consulting with Brinson and subsequently denied to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter that he had ever even heard of Brinson. But as for Brinson himself, he's already gone. “Oh, they're ticked at me,” he says. “But it's because they're scared. This has the potential to break the Republican coalition.”


I generally agree with Democratic outreach to religious-minded voters, but I dislike thinking about it in terms of a Rovian political calculus. My own pet idea has been reclaiming some of the erosion of the Democratic Catholic vote.

It's not about crafting "religion-friendly" legislation, it's about demonstrating that you share some of the same moral underpinnings, even if you have divergent policies. Let those religious folks who wish to vote Democrat be full partners in the party coalition rather than peons and tools like they are in the GOP.


Like an abusive boyfriend, Republicans keep moderate evangelicals in the coalition by alternating between painting their options as bleak and wooing them with sweet talk. You can't leave me—where are you going to go? To them? They think you're stupid, they hate religion. Besides, you know I love you—I'm a compassionate conservative. The tactic works as long as evangelicals don't call the GOP's bluff and as long as Democrats are viewed as hostile to religion.


George W. Bush isn't really a tool of the evangelical right. Once liberals get it through their heads that Bush isn't really a theocrat and separate the reality from the rhetoric, then maybe the Democrats have a shot.

Kieran Healy at Crooked Timer replies, citing my hero, the sociologist-priest Andrew Greeley. Kevin Drum tries to be open-minded about his colleague. Atrios is more skeptical and thinks it is pandering to the wrong crowd. PZ Myers is even more hostile.
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