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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Faith and Democrats

Democrats have a problem with religious voters. In the 2010 vote for the House, exit polls show, Republicans got:

  • 77% of white evangelicals;
  • 59% of white Catholics;
  • 58% of those who attend weekly religious services (this category, of course, overlaps with the first two).

In The New Republic, Tiffany Stanley reports that Democrats have faltereed in their outreach to religious voters. President Obama made strong efforts in the 2008 campaign, but some key staffers who worked in the effort (see previous post on Joshua DuBois) went to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships , where they could not do overtly partisan work.

At the same time, the national party began to strip down its religious outreach programs. The DNC’s faith program had at least seven staffers on hand in the 2008 race; during the recent midterms, it downsized to one, who was also charged with African-American outreach—a throwback to the days when Democratic faith outreach meant showing up at black churches. To be sure, there are significant differences between midterm and presidential elections, but even taking this into consideration, several insiders say that the Democrats’ faith effort noticeably dropped within the last two years. According to Mark Silk, a professor at Trinity College who writes frequently on religion and politics, the Democrats “did take [faith outreach] seriously enough in 2008.” But, he says, “it didn’t happen in 2010.”

Current DNC Chairman (and former missionary) Tim Kaine has made vague statements denying that he would allow faith outreach to falter, but evidence of the DNC’s clear commitment to faith-based coordination is hard to come by. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) will not confirm the amount spent on faith-based efforts during the midterms, but it seems likely that it was less than the reported $82,000 spent on faith outreach in 2008. “I haven’t met or talked to anyone who knows of specific activities that are happening out of the Democratic Party right now,” says Rebecca Sager, a sociologist who studied faith outreach during the last two elections. In the lead-up to the midterms, Sager embedded with the campaign of Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello, who ran a strong religious outreach program in 2008, and attempted to do the same in 2010. In 2010, however, the candidate received little encouragement from the national party to pursue religiously motivated voters, according to Sager. (He ultimately lost his re-election bid.)

The experience of Democratic political consultants, Eric Sapp and Burns Strider, whose consulting company, Eleison, specializes in Democratic faith outreach, further testifies to the newly diminished role of faith-based campaigning. In 2008, Eleison was contracted to work on over 40 campaigns. This year, it was not hired by a single campaign. In August, the DNC made a last-minute play and brought the company on board, but, as Sapp puts it, “you couldn’t get a program fully underway in a couple months.”