Another day, another story suggesting that "faith voters" are the key to the Democratic majorities. Today's culprit: The New York Times' David D. Kirkpatrick.
As Democrats turn toward the 2008 presidential race, a novice evangelical political operative is emerging as a rising star in the party, drawing both applause and alarm for her courtship of theological conservatives in the midterm elections.
Party strategists and nonpartisan pollsters credit the operative, Mara Vanderslice, and her 2-year-old consulting firm, Common Good Strategies, with helping a handful of Democratic candidates make deep inroads among white evangelical and churchgoing Roman Catholic voters in Kansas, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Exit polls show that Ms. Vanderslice's candidates did 10 percentage points or so better than Democrats nationally among those voters, who make up about a third of the electorate. As a group, Democrats did little better among those voters than Senator John Kerry's campaign did in 2004.
Ms. Vanderslice's success in 2006 is a sharp rebound from her first campaign, in 2004. She was hired, at age 29, to direct religious outreach for Mr. Kerry in his presidential campaign and was then quickly shoved aside, a casualty of a losing battle to persuade him to speak more openly about his Catholic faith, even if it meant taking on the potentially awkward subject of his support for abortion rights.
The midterm elections were a "proof point" for arguments that Ms. Vanderslice had made two years before, said Mike McCurry, a Democratic consultant and former spokesman for President Bill Clinton who worked with Ms. Vanderslice on the Kerry campaign. For the Democrats, Mr. McCurry said, Ms. Vanderslice and her company "were the only ones taking systematic, methodical steps to build a religious component in the practical campaign work."
Looking at numbers across the board, it's difficult to see any real gains made by Democrats among religiously observant voters. As I detailed not long after election day, Evangelicals and regular churchgoers moved from the Republicans to the Democrats at a far lower rate in 2006 than both the nation as a whole and actual swing demographics, like Hispanics and those without a high school diploma. While it's certainly possible that these "faith" outreach exercises helped swing non-Evangelicals and those who infrequently attend religious services while failing to substantially move these other segments, I have not seen data to prove that to be true.
And even if it is true that, as Kirkpatrick writes, "Vanderslice's candidates did 10 percentage points or so better than Democrats nationally among those voters" it's not entirely clear to me that this is a result of her actions. What's more, it's not entirely clear what this means -- that, in absolute terms, they did better or, accounting for other factors, they did better. My guess is that the former is the case, that a candidate like Bob Casey ran a net 11 points stronger than Democrats nationally in his race against Rick Santorum and so running 10 points better than other Democrats among religious voters is not quite as astonishing a feat as it seems on the surface.
But in some ways this is beside the point. Vanderslice and others like her might be worth an investment from Democratic candidates because they do help with outreach to a certain segment of the population that Democrats have had some trouble in reaching. Yet this segment is closely aligned with the GOP -- White Evangelicals voted about a net 50 points more Republican than the nation as a whole, those attending church at least weekly voted a net 19 points more Republican than the nation as a whole -- and the Democrats do not need them in order to win elections (as we saw on November 7). The Democrats would be significantly better served by investing to shore up the gains they made among Hispanics, those without a high school diploma, and other groups that shifted dramatically away from the GOP in 2006, thus solidifying their majority, than they would continuing the essentially quixotic and perhaps even futile attempt to steal away "faith voters" from the Republican Party.