Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The God Problem

Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, has a new movie out entitled, "Friends of God". That's not what I'm going to discuss. This article in Raw Story talks about the movie along with the jaw-droppingly hilarious statement by Ted Haggard that evangelicals have a better sex life. I'm not going to discuss that either. Rather, there is a statement from Pelosi that I thought I'd zero in on, because it's apparently a very common sentiment:

Pelosi came away from the experience with an understanding of how evangelicals affect the political sphere, particularly the presidential race.

"Evangelicals are the largest majority bloc in America. … I don't think you can win without them," she said. "I think if you unified, you'll lose if they go against you. John Kerry learned that. Al Gore learned that, and Hillary Clinton will learn it."

There's a lot of nonsense here. I don't know what is meant by "majority bloc"; it seems to me that this must be a misstatement of "minority bloc". Evangelicals definitely are not in the majority. Moreover, this idea that evangelicals are this mighty political force is badly overstated. Pelosi didn't exactly come up with this idea, it's one that's been circulating in the media for a long time. But it's one that needs to stop.

Let's look at some exit polls. In 2004, white evangelical/born again Christians made up 23% of voters. That's nothing to sneeze at, but it's nowhere close to a majority. They went overwhelmingly for Bush over Kerry, 78% to 21%. However -- and here's where things get interesting -- non-Christian voters (Jews, "Other", and "None") made up 20% of the voting population, and they went almost as overwhelmingly for Kerry over Bush, 70.5% vs. 27.3%. In other words, the non-Christian vote almost, but not quite, completely negated the evangelical vote. Yet how often do you hear about the importance of courting non-Christians? The importance of courting evangelicals has become so cliché that the Democrats have actually hired an evangelical consultant. Yet given the fact that evangelical obnoxiousness and hostility towards religious minorities is what helps drive non-Christian voters into the arms of the Democrats, this strategy would seem dubious. The evangelicals probably provide, at most, only a small net advantage for the Republicans.

Did courting evangelicals help the Democrats do better in 2006 than they did in 2004? Although the right-wing spinsters on the cable channels were floating that hypothesis the second the returns started showing a big Republican loss, the 2006 exit polls tell a more complex story. The breakdown by religion was statistically the same as in 2004 -- 24% white evangelical/born-again, and 19% non-Christian. The evangelical share going to the Democrats did improve, to 70%/28%, or about a 15 point swing. (Contra Pelosi, the evangelicals safely went against the Dems, yet the Dems still won.) But there was almost as large of a swing in the non-Christian vote as well. In 2006 non-Christians went for Democrats over Republicans 74.4% vs. 21.9%, which is a 9.3 points.

A major problem in comparing the two above polls is that the 2004 results are for the Presidential election whereas the 2006 results are for House elections. Exit polls based only on the House elections show that the swing among evangelicals was only 6 points. The swing among non-Christians in aggregate, however, was far larger: 22 points for Jews, 4 points for "other faiths", and 18 points for the unaffiliated.

So in conclusion what we can say is this: Evangelicals are an asset to the Republicans, but non-Christians are an almost equal asset to the Democrats. Evangelicals did swing towards the Democrats in '06, but so did everyone else. In House races, the evangelical swing was significantly less than that of the non-Christians, indicating that courting the evangelical vote per se had no discernible benefit.

One thing that really annoys me is the way in which the media have allowed evangelical self-importance to become conventional wisdom. Yes, evangelicals are a potent political force, but so too are non-Christians, and you never hear anything about them. To look at the polling data and then to breathlessly state that the Democrats have a "God problem" is to badly misrepresent the state of affairs. It would be just as accurate to say that the Republicans have a God problem, given that they do terrible among non-Christian voters, they're doing worse as time goes on, and non-Christians are a rapidly growing share of the populace.