If Obama Can’t Make Evangelical Gains, Should Dems Give Up?

bushevangelicals.jpgIn response to God-o-Meter’s earlier post about debunking the myth that the evangelical voting bloc is a myth (like the Catholic voting bloc, say) Missouri State University religion professor/Immanent Frame blogger John Schmalzbauerwhose post GOM was responding to–commented that evangelical cohesion in the voting booth obscures a rich diversity of evangelical opinions on politics and culture.
God-o-Meter thinks that observation is spot on.
Still, polls show that nearly 70-percent of evangelicals support John McCain, a figure that’s in line with evangelical support for previous Republican presidential nominees, despite McCain’s well-documented shortcomings on traditional evangelical issues. It’s another testament to evangelicals’ remarkable political cohesion.
Which leads God-o-Meter to this question: if evangelical support stays where it is on Election Day, despite Obama’s unprecedented evangelical outreach and McCain’s stumbles on all things religion, is it worth it for future Democratic presidential candidates to make a serious play for evangelical votes? Isn’t it a waste of their time?
Schmalzbauer was kind enough to respond at length (God-o-Meter plans to reply shortly):


Dan Gilgoff makes some very good points in his response to my post. At the same time, he underestimates the potential for the Democrats to win over some evangelicals.
Let me begin by saying that 30% for Obama is still a lot of evangelicals, probably 6-10% of the electorate. This is larger than the Jewish vote, the Asian-American vote (which is 6.4% of the population), and nearly as large as the African-American vote. So it makes little sense for Democrats to write off this constituency.
Secondly, there are signs that things are beginning to shift. My original posting for the Immanent Frame cited the Pew survey documenting the drop in Republican partisan identification among evangelicals from 55 percent in 2005 to 40 percent in 2007. This is a trend that bears watching, though it may not bear electoral fruit for several election cycles. Of course, the survey didn’t find a huge increase in evangelical Democrats, just a decrease in Republicans. Still, there are cracks in the Republican base among young evangelicals.
Thirdly, as Dan Gilgoff surely knows, there are lots of ways to measure evangelicalism. Most of the recent surveys rely on a denominational affiliation item, which ignores the evangelicals in mainline denominations. Though these so-called “traditionalist” mainline Protestants may be largely Republican (that’s what the Henry Institute found), this adds a few more million voters to the evangelicals-for-Obama electorate.
Fourth, evangelicals may be open to liberal and Democratic views on certain policy positions. For example, on the Henry Institute survey 52 percent of evangelicals agreed that “Strict rules to protect the environment are necessary even if they cost jobs or result in higher prices,” more than Latino Catholics (47%) or Black Protestants (39%).
Fifth, evangelicals vary widely in their levels of devotion. Both John Green and the Henry Institute folks have distinguished between traditionalist and modernist evangelicals. In the past, Green and Beliefnet’s Steve Waldman have written about the so-called “freestyle evangelicals.” Anyone who has spent some time in the Bible Belt knows that there are plenty of lapsed Baptists and Pentecostals whose politics are more complicated than some of their church-going brethren. Sociologist Arthur E. Farnsley’s ethnography of “flea market believers” found that theologically conservative, non-church going Protestants were “no more likely to vote Republican than Democrat.” Another way to put this question would be, “Is it worth it for the Democrats to go after the Hank Williams, Jr. vote?”
Finally, there are surely evangelical Republicans who, due to temperament and style, are embarrassed by James Dobson’s harsh rhetoric. Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power found that evangelicals in the White House criticized Dobson’s “inability to focus on the family because he’s always focusing on someone else’s business.” This won’t help the Democratic party, but it will lead to a more civil political discourse in America.
Thanks to Dan Gilgoff for raising these questions and for sponsoring one of the more interesting blogs on religion and politics.


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New Age Cowboy

posted July 15, 2008 at 10:08 pm

I grew up Evangelical. I was born in ’74. At age 26 I ended up campaigning for ultra-lefty, Ralph Nader.
A whole host of things happened to me between starting University and being age 26 which lead me to stray from the fold my parents reared me in.
If folks stay in the Evangelical fold (unlike me) the Evangelical-Republican messages could still grow stale. I really wonder how many 20-something Evangelicals realize or even care about the impact of Falwell’s ‘Moral Majority'; or Pat Robertson’s ‘Christian Coalition’?
I think the real test is further out when the consequences for the Iraq war become more apparent. Aging Baby-Boomers are also gonna be exposed to inflation and increased risk, as many of them aren’t even in guaranteed pension plans. The consequences could be very concrete for Evangelicals.
I gave away my political persuasion above. The reason I think McCain still polls so well is… well, to be quite honest – Americans can afford to be stupid.
Flag pins don’t cut the price of gas, nor do they guarantee how a 401K pays out.

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New Age Cowboy

posted July 15, 2008 at 10:13 pm

I guess a real interesting question could be the following:
If McCain is really serious about going to war with Iran (& by all accounts our military is overstretched) would suburban and rural Evangelicals take kindly to having their kids drafted or going to fight themselves?

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John Schmalzbauer

posted July 15, 2008 at 11:49 pm

Two corrections to my post above:
1) The drop in Republican party identification from 55 percent in 2005 to 40 percent in 2007 was among younger evangelicals (ages 18 to 29), not all evangelicals. According to Pew, GOP identification among older evangelicals went down by only 5 percent. This suggests a trend among young evangelicals away from the GOP.
2) The survey data on evangelical support for environmental protection was from 2004. The figure for 2008 is actually lower (43% support it), which may be due to the question’s mention of job losses.
But evangelicals are fairly supportive of environmentalism on the Pew survey that was just released.
John Schmalzbauer

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Charles Cosimano

posted July 16, 2008 at 1:00 am

Obama does not need a majority of Evangelicals to win, he merely needs about 25% of them and he should get that easily. The battle is over the older voters who are not impressed by the theater and who vastly outnumber the younger ones.
And since Iran can be destroyed without commiting a single American on the ground, just by blasting from the air, no one is really very worried about that, certainly not enough to change their vote.

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