October 25, 2006

Courting Religious Voters for the November Elections

Experts Convened to Discuss Lessons Learned from 2004

As Democrats try to win back one or both houses of Congress this November, they are increasingly employing the language of faith and morality to frame the issues, hearkening back to the 2004 GOP campaign and its appeal to “values voters.”

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That election was widely perceived as a “wakeup call” by Democrats, said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and co-editor of the new book The Values Campaign? The Christian Right and the 2004 Election.

It might be difficult, said Green, for Republicans to duplicate their past success with religious voters this year, in part because many Christian conservatives are disillusioned over what they perceive as a lack of progress on the GOP’s social issues platform.

“We may not see a wholesale desertion of Christian conservatives from the Republican Party,” Green said. “But we could see depressed turnout” when measured against comparable mid-term elections.

“It might be very significant in some races, maybe less significant in others, but a lot of the contested House and Senate races are so close now that even a modest decline could make a difference.”

Green was one of three expert observers of religion and politics participating in a recent roundtable discussion at the Forum. The gathering was not open to the public or the media but a transcript has been posted on the Forum’s website.

To read the transcript, see http://www.pewforum.org/events/?EventID=129 or click here.

Joining Green were Amy Sullivan, a contributing editor at Washington Monthly and Ross Douthat, an associate editor at Alantic Monthly. All three agreed that values voters were a key to GOP victories in 2004, but not as important as some early reviews of the election suggested. Still, exit polling convinced Democrats to pay more attention to the “faith factor.”

The 2004 election “was a turning point for some Democrats who had been anxious to talk about religion but didn’t feel it was acceptable within the party,” said Sullivan, who is writing a book on faith and the Democratic Party. The party’s realization that most Americans are religious and don’t want candidates to compartmentalize their faith gave candidates “the go-ahead to just get out there, take off the muzzle and be who they are.”

In recent months, former presidential nominee John Kerry, potential 2008 presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and a growing list of other Democrats have been openly talking about their faith and framing issues like the war in Iraq, the environment and poverty as moral questions.

But that comes with a risk. Some have warned that by embracing religious rhetoric Democrats could alienate the secular wing of the party.

“How [do Democrats] integrate whatever successes they have with candidates who talk more openly about faith” with “these public figures … who don’t want religion in public life?” asked Douthat.

One approach many Democrats are taking is to frame issues in a way that the entire party finds acceptable. The experts noted that Democrats recently have started talking about “the common good,” a phrase that is not explicitly religious but clearly hints at a moral framework for public policy.

“I thought it was just a gimmick that Democrats were starting to talk about the common good,” said Sullivan, who served as a legislative aide to former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, a Democrat. “But now I’ve talked to enough voters who bring that up unprompted and heard about a lot of focus groups where people are talking about phrases like the common good, and I think it’s very powerful.”

While Democrats are finding new ways to address moral issues, Republicans are struggling to reconnect with some of the religious voters that turned out for them in droves in 2004. Douthat said that while conservative optimism about bringing political reform and freedom to the Middle East coupled nicely with an anti-abortion agenda in 2004, ongoing problems in Iraq have made such a linkage “untenable, at least in the near future.”

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life provides opinion leaders with timely, impartial information on issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. As an independent, nonpartisan and non-advocacy organization, the Forum does not take positions on policy debates. The Forum is a project of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. Both organizations are based in Washington, D.C., and are sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts.