Democrats had a lot to celebrate last November, but in some instances, the self-congratulations were a bit premature.
The weekend after the election, The Washington Post headline proclaimed, “Democrats Win Bigger Share of Religious Vote,” while the piece suggested, “The ‘God gap’ in American politics has narrowed substantially.” The New York Times followed, gleefully enumerating creative efforts to lure religious voters into the Democratic camp.
While making progress with these voters would be wonderful, the simple, sad fact is we have not. Doing so is certainly important. As I have long argued, religion is central to the values and lives of most Americans and it plays an increasingly important role in organizing political viewpoints.
The debate is not about whether Democrats should reach out to religious voters; it is about how much success they can claim.
Here we will look at the facts. In the future, we will examine the reasons and potential responses.
The important distinction here is less denominational and much more the extent to which individuals espouse a traditional religious philosophy. Politically, traditionally observant Catholics have more in common with religious Protestants than with non-practicing Catholics.
Unfortunately, the exit polls do not tap these philosophical orientations directly, nor are they even consistent in the questions they pose. We will make do though, analyzing white evangelical Protestants and weekly churchgoers where data are available.
In a wave election almost everybody moves. In this case, religious voters moved to a lesser extent than did nonreligious voters — which means the God gap widened instead of narrowing and that these voters were probably not moved by specific appeals directed to them. Effective outreach would have moved religious voters more than others; in fact, they moved less.
Compared to 2004, in the 2006 national House vote Democrats added 3 points to their vote total among white evangelical Protestants, but 4 points among everyone else. They added 3 points among those who attend church weekly, but 6 points among occasional attendees and 7 points among those who never set foot inside a religious establishment.
Thus, the true measure of the God gap increased.
Evangelists for the good news of success rightly argue that substantial efforts to make inroads with religious voters were confined to a few states. However, similar conclusions emerge from those locales. In winning Ohio’s governorship, Ted Strickland improved on John KerryJohn KerryOvernight Tech: Meet the key players for Trump on tech | Patent chief staying on | Kerry aide goes to Snapchat | Uber's M settlement Tillerson met with top State official: report The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE’s performance among weekly church attendees by 14 points. However, Strickland gained a larger 18 points on Kerry among those who never go.
In Michigan, Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s total among weekly worshippers was 3 points higher than Kerry’s. However, she improved on his showing by 8 among those who spend Sunday morning in bed.
In Pennsylvania, new Democratic Sen. Bob CaseyBob CaseyLive coverage: Senators grill Trump's Treasury pick Live coverage: Tom Price's confirmation hearing Senate Democrats brace for Trump era MORE Jr., whose pro-life views seemed a natural for religious conservatives, garnered 47 percent among weekly churchgoers. That looks impressive until you realize it was only 4 points higher than John Kerry’s vote with that segment. Among those who never attend, Casey bested Kerry by a much greater 10 points.
I’ll spare you the tedious arithmetic for each state; suffice it to say that smaller gains with religious voters, combined with seculars flooding into the Democratic column, expanded, rather than narrowed, the “God gap” in each of these states.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.