Resizing the "God Gap"?

462px James Dobson 1Democrats were more successful in attracting religious voters across the board this year than in the previous election -- that much seems indisputable. After that, the debate gets interesting. Did the party make dramatic gains? Incremental gains? Minor ones? A return to the pre-Kerry status quo? That depends on your point of view.

Here's a link to the raw exit poll data on the website. If you see big discrepancies in numbers among most of the big news organizations (the networks and many other media outlets pool their exit polling data), that may be a red flag.

Now let's take a look at a few interpretations.

Titled "Democrat Faith Gains: Overblown?" A post on Beliefnet's God-O-Meter by blogger Dan Gilgoff basically says: not so fast.

For all the time, money, and effort that Democrats and their liberal allies spent trying to move the faithful into their column--particularly the white faithful--it seems that they have relatively little to show for it, despite Obama's decisive victory. Yes, Obama narrowed the God Gap. He took 44-percent of weekly churchgoers, compared to 35-percent for John Kerry in 2004.

But most of the narrowing appears to have come at the hands of minority voters, the ones that have historically formed the Democratic party base, rather than the white religious voters that the Obama campaign and its faith-based allies wooed so strenuously.

So viewed through the lens of the Obama campaign's attempt to court white evangelical voters, the gains seem small.

Of course, minorities were also courted by both Democrats and Republicans -- so isn't it notable when they switch parties?

It's also arguable, given that there were no big concessions to conservatives in the traditional Democratic platform, particularly on the abortion issue, how assidously the Obama campaign wooed them.

Amy Sullivan spotlights a different angle on in "Obama: Bringing (Some) Evangelicals In."

She begins her article with an anecdote about Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson:

James Dobson may be the only Evangelical whose Sunday school teacher apparently never warned him to be careful what he prayed for. Two weeks before Election Day, the Focus on the Family founder chatted with Sarah Palin on his radio show and shared his backup plan for the struggling GOP ticket. He was, Dobson told her, praying for "God's intervention" and that "God's perfect will be done on November the 4th."

Unless Dobson has undergone a dramatic political conversion, it's safe to assume he does not consider Barack Obama's election on Tuesday to be divinely ordained. In June, Dobson delivered a furious broadside against the Democrat, charging that he was "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view." And yet in a year in which the economy mattered more than social issues for most voters, Obama's comfortable victory included Democratic gains in every single religious category among the electorate.

This seems like apples and oranges. Is Sullivan is implying that most evangelicals -- or religious folks generally -- usually tend to follow Dobson's recommendations -- a "Dobson's Choice?" It's not at all clear what the connection is here.

The article also capitalizes "Evangelicals" -- this implies they are a monolith and that we all have an agreed-on definition of who they are. Of course, as Tmatt points out in another post for today, that isn't the case.

After some analysis of the results, Sullivan turns her attention to the "one voting bloc that remains largely unmoved by Obamamania: white evangelicals."

Why did not more than roughly a quarter of them go for the Democrat? And here Sullivan has a few interesting notions.

The main reason is geography. The largest percentage of white Evangelicals are in Southern states that were never in play for Democrats. They were therefore never part of any outreach effort --Obama's 50-state strategy didn't involve sending campaign staff to organize Alabama Bible colleges. Instead, the Obama camp focused its energy on a handful of battleground states with sizable Evangelical populations, including Colorado, Indiana and Michigan.

In those target states, Obama both outperformed his national average among white Evangelicals and chipped away at the GOP's 2004 advantage. In Michigan, where the state party began building relationships with social conservatives in the western half of the state during the 2006 election cycle, Obama won 33% of the white Evangelical vote, a 12-point shift from 2004. The campaign's Evangelical outreach coordinator spent the last weeks of the race in tightly-contested Indiana, with impressive results -- 30% of the state's white Evangelicals voted for Obama (a 14-point gain), and the Democrat split the Catholic vote with McCain (a 13-point gain).

Even Colorado, where Kerry won a measly 13% of the white Evangelical vote in 2004, proved relatively fertile ground. The Obama camp reached out to moderate Evangelicals in Dobson's base of Colorado Springs, bringing in popular Christian author Donald Miller as a campaign surrogate. The result was a 29-point shift in the vote on Election Day for Obama. By contrast, in a state like Iowa, where the campaign had little to no religious outreach presence, the white Evangelical vote was unchanged.

Those provocative assertions do provide readers with a point of view that deserves some careful examination, particularly when we too have access to the more detailed polling data. I wish Sullivan had told us where she got it from.

Sullivan also asserts that the "small gains that Obama made in the battleground states targeted by his religious outreach staff were the results of just six weeks of activity leading up to the election."

The lively ongoing debate in evangelical circles about social justice issues, abortion, and the Bible shows that evangelicals cannot be stereotyped, and "religious voters" even less so. To her credit, Sullivan recognizes that there may be a multiplicity of reasons for the supermajority of white evangelicals/conservatives who voted for McCain, from social issues to party identity to "theological and racial reasons."

One more analysis is worth noting for now.

After a careful look at the data, "How the Faithful Voted" the article on the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life website, concludes:

While the Democrats gained support since 2004 among people of all levels of religious observance, the exit poll data also show that those who attend worship services regularly voted differently than those who attend worship services less often, as was the case in 2004. In 2008, 43% of weekly churchgoers voted for Obama, as did 67% of those who never attend worship services, for an "attendance gap" of 24 points. By comparison, 39% of weekly churchgoers voted for Kerry in 2004, compared with 62% of those who never attend religious services, for a similar attendance gap of 23 points.

Overall, these data suggest that Obama was successful at retaining - and even increasing - Democratic support among constituencies that typically support Democrats at very high rates (for example, those who rarely attend religious services and the religiously unaffiliated) while also making some inroads among groups that have tended in recent years to be more supportive of Republican candidates (for example, white evangelicals and those who attend worship services on a regular basis).

When speculation is rampant, the work of John Green and the excellent Pew team offers a pretty safe harbor.

I'm guessing this is just the beginning of articles by journalists and other media mavens reading the polling tea-leaves -- and, to butcher a metaphor, making hay out of the data.

By the way, that's a photo of Dr. James Dobson from Wikimedia Commons. But those of you who are "religious voters" undoubtedly knew that already (grin.)

Please respect our Commenting Policy