Grabbing Religious Voters

For decades, Republican presidential candidates have been winning over some religious voters practically by default, facing little competition from Democrats. This revolution began in 1969 when antiwar liberals used the McGovern Commission to hijack the presidential wing of the Democratic Party and, except for the Carter and Clinton presidencies, has continued the same through the last two presidential elections. "If the Gore campaign had a Catholic vote effort, we never noticed it," Deal W. Hudson, the GOP’s principal outside advisor in 2000 to Catholics, writes in Onward, Christian Soldiers. "I’m not sure the Democrats realize how many otherwise quite liberal pro-life women, Catholics in particular, have switched sides over this issue but continue to look for a way back to the Democrats, with whom they agree on almost every other matter," Melinda Henneberger writes in If They Only Listened to Us, her account of why so many women voters defected from John Kerry in 2004.
 


By Amy Sullivan
Scribner, $25, 272 pages
 
 
 
For decades, Republican presidential candidates have been winning over some religious voters practically by default, facing little competition from Democrats. This revolution began in 1969 when antiwar liberals used the McGovern Commission to hijack the presidential wing of the Democratic Party and, except for the Carter and Clinton presidencies, has continued the same through the last two presidential elections. "If the Gore campaign had a Catholic vote effort, we never noticed it," Deal W. Hudson, the GOP’s principal outside advisor in 2000 to Catholics, writes in Onward, Christian Soldiers. "I’m not sure the Democrats realize how many otherwise quite liberal pro-life women, Catholics in particular, have switched sides over this issue but continue to look for a way back to the Democrats, with whom they agree on almost every other matter," Melinda Henneberger writes in If They Only Listened to Us, her account of why so many women voters defected from John Kerry in 2004.
 
Yet this era may be coming to an end. As Amy Sullivan, a senior editor at Time and former Democratic staffer, details in her briskly written and insightful new book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap, Democrats are making a play for some "values voters." The Democratic National Committee hired its first outreach coordinator to Catholics, John Kelly. Two ex-DNC staffers founded Common Good Strategies, a political consulting firm that, by running ads on Christian radio stations, helped several Democratic congressional candidates gain office in 2006. And all but seven Democrats in the House passed an appropriations bill for "abortion reduction" (note the language), while 139 Republicans voted in opposition.
 
Will the Democrats’ new strategy work? The answer is that it depends. As Sullivan notes, the goal of the Democrats’ plan is not to make the party culturally traditional; it’s to "poach" enough religious voters away from the GOP. "In a state like this, if I can get two or three percent of evangelicals to be either independents or to vote Democratic, that’s a huge shift," Mark Brewer, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, tells Sullivan. Brewer’s assessment applies to other states as well. Take Ohio in 2004. If 59,301 state voters had switched their votes from George W. Bush to John Kerry, Kerry would have won the election.
 
To her credit, Sullivan acknowledges the resistance within the party to even the modest goal of grabbing a segment of religious voters. While Hillary Clinton in 2005 famously endorsed reducing the number of abortions, her liberal feminist and abortion-rights allies have opposed any such concession; as Sullivan notes, the groups "fear that a successful abortion-reduction effort would hurt their overall cause and make women feel guilty about having abortions." For example, in anticipation of the abortion-reduction bill in the House, Planned Parenthood commissioned a poll that found that Americans preferred reducing the need of abortion rather than the number of abortions and lobbied Democrats to defeat the appropriations bill. Although the abortion industry’s efforts failed, Sullivan implies that they would be more likely to stop a "Democratic nominee (from endorsing) abortion reduction efforts from the podium at a national convention."
 
I should mention that I part with Sullivan’s prescription on moral grounds. Her proposals would make the party of abortion rights, human cloning, and embryonic stem cell research friendlier to religious voters, while largely bypassing traditional positions on the sanctity of human life. (A better solution, I argue in my book, is to democratize the party’s nomination system and rules. This kind of reform would give religious and downscale Democrats a voice in the presidential wing of the party.)
 
That criticism aside, Sullivan’s proposal to micro-target and reach out to religious voters might well succeed politically. This should scare Republicans. This fall Barack Obama may follow a new Democratic playbook: He speaks at liberal Catholic universities and appears on stage with a bishop or two in key swing states; and his campaign aides canvas heavily Catholic and evangelical counties. Already, he has ads on Christian radio discussing his faith and has proposed spending more money on the government‘s faith-based programs. None of this represents a major policy concession, as with Bill Clinton signing the Defense of Marriage Act. Yet Obama‘s rhetorical and organizational appeal to religious voters might pick off enough of them to turn the election.
 
Of course, the presidential wing of the Democratic Party will not have changed much. It will still have a litmus-test for Supreme Court nominees on cultural issues. It will still have hard quotas for female delegates and implied quotas for homosexual delegates, both of which favor the secular liberal wing of the party. And it will still have an undemocratic and elitist nominating system. But if the election this fall between Obama and McCain is neck and neck, Sullivan’s proposals could well tip the scales in favor of the Democrats.
 


Mark Stricherz, a contributor to GetReligion.org and InsideCatholic.com, is the author of
Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party (Encounter Books). 

 

Joan Frawley Desmond

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Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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