The Unreported Political Implications of Pew's Religion Poll

The problem with religious academics doing political polls and non-religious reporters covering them is that the headlines can get skewed and political implications muddled.
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I love Pew. But the problem with religious academics doing political polls and non-religious reporters covering them is that the headlines can get skewed and political implications muddled. The headlines from yesterday's Pew poll on religion and politics should have all read: "Obama and Romney Both Face Serious Faith Problems," with the subheading: "Election could hinge on which candidates fixes them."

To be fair, a lot of the headlines did focus on the fact that less than half of Americans know that President Obama is a Christian. But the stories didn't provide much context for what that means or how it happened. It's clearly not good. Along with most not knowing Obama is Christian, even more troubling is that only 45 percent of voters are comfortable with Obama's religion.

Here's a key point in the poll that didn't get much attention: 82 percent of those who know Obama is Christian say they are comfortable with his religion. So voters are basically twice as comfortable with Obama's faith when they know what it is. This is why faith outreach is so important (but more on that later).

Why does the fact that most voters are not comfortable with Obama's religion matter? More than two-thirds of voters (and seven-in-10 women voters) say they want a president with strong religious beliefs. As one might imagine, these numbers are even higher with religious populations. Eight-in-10 Protestants and three-in-four Catholic voters want a president with strong religious beliefs. And let's be honest, they aren't talking about wanting Obama to have strong Muslim beliefs (so the fact that 17 percent of voters think he's Muslim doesn't add to the plus column)!

These questions are all a proxy for whether voters think the candidate is like them, shares their values and is someone they can trust. For many Christian voters, one of the most important ways they judge that is by the person's faith. That's not because they are prejudiced or trying to impose religion on the country, but because if faith is real, it informs everything about a person and all their values. And we want people representing us who share our values.

This is Romney's problem, too, and where headlines (and Pew's report) badly missed the mark, generally framing the poll results the way USA Today did: "Voters unconcerned with Romney's Mormon Faith." That is technically correct, but completely misses the political significance of the poll. First off, unlike the 80 percent+ support Obama got from people who knew his faith, to only 60 percent of voters knew Romeny was Mormon were "comfortable" with it.

But more to the point, overall numbers aren't what's important when it comes to Romney's faith. It's kind of like saying immigration won't have an impact in the election because most voters don't care too much about it. Same with gay issues or even healthcare. In the same way any political operative will look at swing states rather than national numbers, we need to look at the politically significant groups that care the most about the issues and will be swayed by them, not the overall national numbers.

Here's the key fact about Romney's faith: One-in-four white evangelical voters said they were uncomfortable with his Mormon faith. And evangelicals who were uncomfortable with his faith were more than twice as likely to not be strong supporters. That matters because a quarter of American voters are white evangelicals, and the last time a Republican won the White House, 42 percent of his votes came from white evangelicals.

To put that in perspective, 10 percent of Obama's votes in '08 came from the African American community. Imagine the coverage and fear in Democratic circles if Obama did something causing half of African American voters to go from "strong" to "not strong" supporters for Obama.

So Romney has a serious religion problem. And Obama has a serious religion problem. What can be done? I'll leave it to others to make suggestions for Romney, but there are some simple answers for Obama and Democrats. Go back to what worked for us in 2006 and 2008! In those years, Democrats did significant outreach to faith voters, and that outreach worked. In states where Democrats had faith field programs on the ground and were advertising on Christian radio and organizing on Christian campuses, they saw a 20 percent increase with Protestant voters over Democrats who were not, and Obama made major gains with evangelicals and Catholics compared to Kerry.

Will the entire election turn on faith outreach and whether people are comfortable with Obama's faith? No. But on the other hand, Obama's margins of victory in many of the swing states he won in '08 equaled the gains he made with religious voters over Kerry. And in an election as close as this one will be, we can't ignore something as central to most Americans as faith.

The DNC has a growing faith program and good people running it, and OFA recently hired Michael Wear to head their faith efforts. But neither program has organizers on the ground. And despite the fact that some of the largest Christian publications in the country have reached out to the Obama campaign saying they would welcome advertising on their networks, Obama has thus far abandoned the Christian media networks to Republicans and the right -- and we wonder why people get confused on his faith. If we're not talking to voters and they only hear lies from the other side, they start to believe the lies.

Democratic faith outreach shouldn't look like what the religious right does. When our outreach works, it's authentic and humble and focused on relationships and clearly-articulated values. And when it works we win because when American voters understand what our core values are, the vast majority recognize they are the ones they share. But we can't count on voters to figure it out. And as the Pew poll shows, we can't expect them to ignore the lies from the Right if we ignore them.

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