Democrats Lost the Faith of Religious Voters

by Nathan L. Gonzales November 18, 2010 · 10:06 AM EST

Ever since Barack Obama uttered the words “awesome God” in his 2004 convention speech, Democrats embarked on a multiyear journey to convince voters of faith. But any inroads Democrats made with religious voters over the past four years were essentially washed away in this year’s midterm elections.

Voters of all religious persuasions were consumed by the economy and took out their frustrations on the party in power, but according to multiple Democratic sources, the party’s outreach to faith voters is just a shell of what it once was.

The wave of evangelicals that former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed predicted this fall never materialized, but once again white evangelicals made up one-quarter of the electorate and voted heavily Republican.

Democratic candidates won 28 percent of the white evangelical vote in 2006, and Obama took 24 percent of the group in 2008, according to the national exit polls. A couple of weeks ago, Democratic candidates received only 19 percent of the white evangelical vote compared with 77 percent for Republican candidates.

The drop-off was even more stunning in a place such as west Tennessee where Roy Herron could be the poster child for Democratic faith outreach.

“I’m a truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy,” Herron said in one of his campaign ads. He’s a former Methodist minister who has authored multiple Christian books.

He also lost his race in the 8th district by a whopping 20 points to a gospel-singing rancher named Steven Fincher (R).

“I think most people thought that both of us shared their faith and their faith values,” Herron explained in an interview Tuesday. “But people wanted to send a message, not a man.” Illustrating this cycle’s tough terrain, Herron’s 39 percent of the vote was short of both Obama’s showing in 2008 (43 percent) and even Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s 47 percent in the 2004 presidential election.

“You’ve had scandal after scandal, and I think Christian people are saying: ‘Enough. One-party government, a monarchy, is not what we want. We’re ready for change,’” Herron said in an October 2006 CNN interview posted on his YouTube channel. Four years later much of that sentiment came back, but in reverse.

Nationally, concern over the direction of the country and the economy hit Democrats particularly hard in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, where the party lost seats by the handful.

White Catholic voters, who were hit hard by the economy, swung dramatically toward the GOP, by 18 points earlier this month. In comparison, Democrats won white Catholic voters narrowly in 2006 and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won them by only 5 points in the 2008 presidential contest.

To some Democratic strategists, the party’s setbacks among various faith groups are deeper than the economic downturn.

“It just reinforced what we learned when we were winning, just from the side of losing this time,” said Democratic consultant Eric Sapp of the Eleison Group. “It matters when we engage these folks.”

There was no national outreach to faith voters this year, even though Democrats in past years managed a robust operation, with Howard Dean targeting evangelicals while running the Democratic National Committee and the Obama campaign having a strong faith program in 2008. But 2010 candidates were left to build their own infrastructure.

Two years ago, Tom Perriello talked extensively about his faith, framed his public service in the light of his faith background and defeated Virginia GOP Rep. Virgil Goode, 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent. But his campaign just wasn’t the same.

“They did virtually all of the same things but didn’t have nearly the kind of impetus as 2008,” said Loyola Marymount University sociology professor Rebecca Sager, who was embedded in both of Perriello’s Congressional campaigns for an upcoming book she is writing.

In both races, the Democrat ran his Common Good Summer Fellows program and campaign staff tithed a portion of their time to community service, but neither had the same emphasis or coordination as in 2008.

Other aspects were completely different. According to Sager, Perriello’s 2008 campaign team was born out of the same progressive faith movement, while this year’s staff had the look, feel and personnel of a more traditional political campaign.

One former Perriello campaign aide admitted that “more pressing issues” took over during the campaign but that the behind-the-scenes faith outreach never stopped. According to local ministers that Sager talked with in Virginia’s 5th district, this year’s Perriello campaign “just didn’t get it.”

Perriello lost his re-election race 51 percent to 47 percent to state Sen. Robert Hurt (R).

So where do Democrats go from here?

This cycle, the party’s use of faith was dramatically different from the past two election cycles. Previously, Democrats tried a positive approach, touting their own candidates’ credentials to the faith community and framing issues in moral terms.

But this year, with their backs against the wall, the Democratic approach was either nonexistent or embodied by Jack Conway’s television ad in the Kentucky Senate race that accused GOP nominee Rand Paul of being affiliated with a group in college that mocked Christianity and Christ as well as tied up a woman and forced her to worship a false idol named Aqua Buddha.

Paul defeated Conway 56 percent to 44 percent.

“It’s not the way we recommend doing things,” said Sapp, who has consulted numerous Democratic candidates on reaching out to faith communities. “I don’t think it was effective or the right way to bring religion into the public square. You have to build a base before you do it.”

Sapp, Sager and others agree that Democrats need a protracted faith effort that is consistent over time so it doesn’t look like a biannual pilgrimage for votes.

“You’re talking about a community that believes in forgiveness,” Sapp joked about the lack of Democratic faith outreach over the past two years. “We did it right over four years and built relationships. Those have been stretched or strained, but I think those can be picked back up. If we wait until the summer of 2012, it’s going to be a lot harder.”