Want to see an op-ed piece that misses the big picture? Check out the "Swing Is Still King At the Polls" essay today in the Washington Post by former Bill Clinton pollster Mark J. Penn. It's another attempt to throw cold water on debates about the red vs. blue divide in the 2000 and 2004 elections. The point of the essay is simple: There is a big and important mushy zone between the pure red voters and the pure blue voters.
Well, duh. This has been a constant theme here at GetReligion forever and ever, amen. The evidence is that there are hard blue zip codes on the left (secularists and the strong religious left) and hard red zones on the right (traditional religious believers with major clout in the Bible Belt and, thus, the U.S. Senate). As I keep saying, you really need to read that "Tribal Relations" piece in The Atlantic Monthly.
But back to Penn. I really hope the Post balances this piece -- quickly -- with an op-ed by someone (Hadley Arkes perhaps) who understands the role of moral and cultural issues in the red vs. blue era. Yes, friends and neighbors, Penn writes about red, blue and swing voters and totally ignores the very issues that have defined the era. He also seems to have missed the point that the red vs. blue divide is not a pure divide between the GOP and the Democrats. There are red issue voters stranded in the Democratic Party. Then again, perhaps that is why Penn does not bring them up, since it is not in his interest to mention that. This is the hot story as the Democrats ponder what to do with, for example, abortion and the definition of marriage.
Try to find an awareness of these tough issues in this Penn language:
... (O)utside the Beltway, trends show that voters are increasingly open and flexible, not rigid. They are looking at candidates' records and visions, not their party affiliation. In the past 50 years independents have grown from one-quarter to one-third of the electorate, according to Gallup polls. In California, the number of independent voters more than doubled between 1991 and 2005. The fastest-growing political party in the United States is no party.
According to the American National Election Studies at the University of Michigan, the number of split-ticket voters in the electorate -- meaning people who vote for a Democrat for president and a Republican for Congress, or vice versa -- has gone up 42 percent since 1952. That shows a radical new willingness on the part of Americans to look at individual candidates, not party slates. It is a sign of a thinking electorate, not a partisan one.
Read Penn's piece. Did I miss something? Can anyone find any threads in it linked to faith, morality and culture? Where has this guy been for the past decade?
At this point, we do not know what will happen to the voters who pivot on the faith and culture issues, for the simple reason that both parties are a bit scared of them at the moment (even the GOP). But those issues will not go away, and it will be impossible to ignore them forever.
LET ME JUMP IN with a quick update: Here is a story by David Kirkpatrick -- who covers the conservative disputes beat at the New York Times -- that certainly shows the role of social issues in one of the hottest contests in the nation. That would be the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania.
It's a solid story -- a variation on the right-wing signing up pastors template -- but with one element that is rather buried at the end. What happens when churches on the left do the same thing (or take hot issues into the pulput)?
This is how the story ends. I think this element needed to go higher, with more info. Were these events similar?
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the network reflected "a growing backdoor, under-the-radar effort to lure churches into political campaigns" that could risk their tax exemptions.
Michael Geer, the president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute and a speaker on March 6, said such critics were trying to "squelch the free speech" of conservative pastors. No one complained, Mr. Geer said, when opponents of the state marriage amendment had an organizing meeting last week at St. Michael's Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, Pa.
But were materials from any candidates put in the spotlight at the Lutheran gig? Were the materials tightly linked to the social issues being discussed in the forum? That's the thin line people are walking on the left and right.
That's what we need to know. Like I said, the social issues are not going to go away.