Religion, Democratic Losses, and the 2010 Election: The Dangers of Exit Polls as Rorschach Tests

Did religious voters cost democrats control of the House? The short answer is, "Yes, along with political independents, rural voters, seniors, white women, and voters with only a high school education."
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Co-authored by Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox

The day after the 2010 mid-term election, Democrats were reading the exit polls, searching for clues to the Republican victories. Operatives who work with particular constituencies were all examining the role their work played in the outcomes, and those doing religious outreach on the Democratic side of the aisle were no different. A Religion News Service story on Wednesday cited a "lifeless" outreach to faith voters as one diagnosis for Democrats' losses.

This is a serious question worth asking: did religious voters cost democrats control of the House? The short answer is, "Yes, along with political independents, rural voters, seniors, white women, and voters with only a high school education."

Faced with significant Democratic defeats, however, some activists who advise Democrats on religious outreach are succumbing to the temptation to claim that the GOP victories are entirely attributable to a lack of faith organizing by Democrats. Take for example, the arguments made by Eric Sapp, founding partner of the Eleison Group, who the RNS article notes worked doing faith outreach on a number of Democratic campaigns in 2006 and 2008 but not in 2010. In both the RNS interview and in an article on Huffington Post, Sapp argues for a causal link between lackluster faith outreach in this election cycle and Democratic losses; his conclusion: "the results were disastrous." To support this argument, Sapp claims the following:

Compared to '06, Democrats nationally saw a 14 point drop in White Protestant support, 14 point drop with White evangelicals, and a whopping 20 point decline with Catholics.

But there are two major problems with this argument: first, it's factually inaccurate -- the numbers are simply wrong. While Democrats experienced significant losses compared to the last mid-term election in 2006, which was a good year for Democrats across the board, Sapp overstates the losses by a factor of two. The actual decreases in support between 2006 and 2010 for Democratic candidates in the House were 8 points among all white Protestants (37 percent to 29 percent), 8 points among white evangelical Christians (28 percent to 20 percent), and 11 points among Catholics (55 percent to 44 percent).

Second, it's theoretically untenable. Assigning the lack of religious outreach any primary, causal role in this particular election is simply not a credible argument, given the economic context, comparable losses among other important demographic groups, and the particular makeup of the 2010 electorate.

For example, compared to 2006, Democrats also lost 11 points among seniors and 10 points among rural voters. And the group that abandoned Democrats most dramatically between the 2006 and the 2010 election was political independents, whose support for Democratic candidates fell nearly 20 points (57 percent to 38 percent).

The composition of the electorate is another important part of the story. The 2010 mid-term electorate was more conservative and older than in other recent elections. In 2006, conservatives made up less than one-third (32 percent) of all voters, compared to more than 4-in-10 voters in 2010. In 2006, 19 percent of voters were age 65 and older, compared to nearly 1-in-4 voters in 2010. In 2008 nearly half of all voters were under the age of 45, compared to about one-third in 2010.

None of this is to say that religious outreach is not vitally important. Although this point is often not well heeded by some in the Democratic leadership to be sure, one only needs to reference the high rates of religiosity in America to make this case. To take just a few points from Public Religion Research Institute's recent American Values Survey: 9-in-10 Americans believe in God, about 8-in-10 claim a specific religious affiliation (75 percent are Christian), nearly 6-in-10 say religion is very important to their lives, and more than half (51 percent) of Americans attend religious services at least once or twice per month. Given these attributes of the American population, no political party can afford to ignore religious outreach.

Democratic activists would do much better building their case on sturdier, more enduring findings. Mike McCurry, a seasoned Democratic political advisor and White House press secretary under Bill Clinton, got it right: "The God gap doesn't explain these election results," McCurry noted in the RNS article, "It was driven by real anxiety people feel about the economy and their future -- but there are moral and ethical components to that, too." In all the polls leading into the election, religious voters, like all voters, said their highest concern was the economy. It is almost certainly the case that Democrats did not adequately address the moral and religious components of voters' economic concerns. But it's also true, as Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners astutely observed, that the election reflected the judgment of voters that Democrats had fundamentally not put forward a compelling vision with concrete policies that directly addressed the underlying economic problems. Religious outreach must be wedded to a compelling vision and political substance. The hard work of religious outreach is in understanding the complexity of policies on the one hand, and the interplay between theology, culture, and the multiple identities that religious Americans negotiate on the other.

To be clear, none of this is to say that religious outreach is not important; rather, because it is important, activists would do well to avoid undermining it by using exaggerated claims about its role in a particular year that was tough for Democrats across the board.

Too often what activists learn from campaigns is that everything they did when they won was right, and everything they did when they lost was wrong. The exit polls become something of a Rorschach test, reflecting their own preconceptions. Many forces contributed to Democratic losses on Tuesday. The significant drop in support among white religious voters is an important part of the story that should deeply concern Democratic leaders, but it is not the story itself.

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