Should Democrats Go After the Evangelical Vote?

by Stuart Rothenberg March 26, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

For some Democrats, including political strategists Mara Vanderslice and Eric Sapp of Common Good Strategies, the answer to whether Democrats should pursue evangelical voters is a no-brainer.

Vanderslice, the founder of the political consulting firm that seeks to help Democratic officeholders and candidates appeal to religious — specifically evangelical — voters, and Sapp, a senior partner in the firm, believe their party can make crucial gains with religious voters by using the right language and posing the right questions. The two Democratic consultants have received plenty of attention, and they crow that all seven candidates they worked with in 2006 won.

A recent highly publicized spat within the evangelical community, pitting traditionalists who believe that issues such as abortion and marriage should drive evangelical political behavior against those who would add environmental, human rights and economic justice concerns to the evangelical agenda, also has some liberals thinking that the Republican hold on evangelical voters is weakening.

But despite what Vanderslice and Sapp believe, the numbers suggest that Democratic opportunities among evangelicals are very limited.

Aside from a very strange Washington Post piece shortly after the November elections that inexplicably exaggerated Democrats’ gains among evangelicals in the midterm elections, most observers have noted the minimal Democratic gains among white evangelicals in 2006.

The GOP percentage among white evangelicals dropped by 4 points from 2004 to 2006, from 74 percent to 70 percent, according to exit polls. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ showing inched up to 28 percent from 25 percent.

Given the strong Democratic year and the huge Republican advantage with white evangelicals, the Democrats’ gain was unimpressive. The 2006 midterm elections were so stunningly good for Democrats that all voter groups moved toward the Democratic Party last year.

In an Atlantic article about Common Good Strategies, Sapp observed, “At a fundamental level [evangelical ministers he talked with] just want candidates to give God his due, more than they care about specific issues.”

If you know anything about evangelicals, you know this is simply wrong. A candidate’s religiosity is not enough for most evangelicals, though it may cause evangelical voters to stop and consider the political hopeful’s agenda. Instead, evangelicals care about issues and where politicians stand on them.

In this regard, evangelicals are closer to Jews (particularly observant Jews) and African-Americans than to Irish or Italian voters who already have blended into the American melting pot. A politician can wear a kippah (a skullcap worn by observant Jews), eat knishes and say that “Fiddler on the Roof” is his favorite movie, and he still won’t get Jewish votes if he opposes Israel and says he wants to Christianize America.

Republicans have spent decades reaching out to the African-American community, but they have made only minimal gains with black voters, in part because of the party’s position on affirmative action and its overall conservatism.

Evangelicals, like blacks and Jews, have a strong group identity and see themselves as outsiders from the dominant social and political culture. Since all three groups tend to be wary of one of the parties, it takes more than words — and in the case of evangelicals, “giving God his due” — to pull them away from their allies.

Those mainstream evangelicals who talk increasingly about protecting the environment or addressing poverty are not discarding their traditional commitment to cultural issues such as abortion. They are not going to support a pro-choice, pro-gay rights Democrat because he or she is an environmentalist or wants the government to help the poor.

Some evangelicals, of course, have always thought that social justice issues were equally important. But that relatively small group has leaned Democratic anyway.

Mainstream evangelicals are much more likely to try to change the Republican Party, where they already have a seat at the table, and broaden the agenda from within than to support liberal Democrats who “give God his due” or reframe the abortion question to avoid using words like pro-choice.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is given a lot of credit for talking about the need to reduce the number of abortions in this country and for talking about her personal faith, but as long as she is still the candidate of EMILY’s List, the influential group seeking to recruit and elect pro-choice Democratic women, most evangelical voters will be deeply suspicious of her intentions and distrustful of her agenda.

Ultimately, for Jews, blacks and evangelicals, politics comes down to political trust.

Evangelicals may indeed be becoming more concerned about a broader array of issues, including the environment, but they aren’t doing so because liberals or Democrats are telling them to; instead, they are listening to mainstream members of their own community.

If Democrats nominate more candidates who hold conservative views on cultural issues, the party may be able to make inroads among evangelicals. Still, as long as the party’s fundamental attitude toward issues such as abortion and gay rights is what it is, Democrats would be much better off trying to lock up suburban moderates before they waste a lot of time trying to attract evangelical voters to their party.