Midterm Election 2006: Pundit Watch
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Nov 28, 2006 at 12:04:07 AM EST
Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates (author info) Back in October, I predicted that after the election, some pundits would wrongly predict the demise of the Christian Right. That was an easy call, but I wasn't expecting one of the analysts drinking the Kool Aid of inside-the-Beltway Democratic Party punditry would be the usually astute Jonathan Alter. Alter drank deep....not only declaring that the election left the "theocons dispirited" and the "Neocons...discredited," but also that the vote signaled "the end of the conserative tide that began rising 40 years ago." According to Alter, the "Conservative Era is over." Mark J. Rozell, an astute observer of the Christian Right, had a better take in an article titled: "What Christian Right?" .
First, the Christian right is here to stay. In a decade of studying and writing about it, I have spoken to many reporters, and when they don’t want to know why the movement is on the verge of extinction they want to know why it is succeeding in its plan to take over the GOP or the nation. Both story lines are exaggerations.

Surveys show that the core constituency of the movement has remained rather steady since the late 1970s, even as its policy fortunes rise or fall with changes in government leadership and public opinion.

Second, analyses of the Christian right should be focused less on national figures and organizations and more on grassroots activism, above all in the South. News of the Christian right has for years gravitated to the big-name personalities who are media savvy, controversial, or both. Yet the real impact of the movement lies with its activist base, not with the decline of the national Christian Coalition or Ralph Reed’s evolution from movement to party leader.

Of course, Rozell wrote this in 2003. Impressive. Not much has changed. According to Rozell:

FOX exit polls in 2002 found that 16 percent of the electorate identified themselves as members of the “conservative Christian political movement,” a result compatible with exit polling data ever since such a question has been posed to voters. The strength of the movement is disproportionately concentrated in the states of the old Confederacy.

The demise of the Moral Majority was the end not of a large social movement but merely of one visible organization that was quickly replaced by another. No more do the current troubles of the national Christian Coalition signal the end to social conservative politics in the United States.

And we saw in September that a new Christian Right coalition was formed to replace the Christian Coalition.

Same old, same old. The Christian Right and the broader voter pool of White Christian evangelicals voted pretty much the same as they did in 2004, and 2002, and 2000. There were some differences, and they were small yet significant. And for some, they were predictable. Polling in October showed Christian Right disatisfaction with the Republican Party. "Evangelicals and the GOP: An Update Strongly Republican Group Not Immune to Party's Troubles" that "evangelicals, like other voters, have been affected by the broader wave of voter disillusionment with President Bush and the Republican Party. Evangelicals remain the party's most supportive group, but at levels significantly diminished from where they were in the 2002 and 2004 elections." Good call. But it is complicated.

Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center claimed in The Real Message of the Midterms" that:

[T]here are few signs that the Republican base deserted the party. Christian conservatives, and conservatives generally, voted as Republican as they did in '02. Nor did white evangelical Protestants defect to the Democrats in any substantial number, as a number of post-election news stories have suggested. True, somewhat fewer white evangelical Protestants voted for Republican Congressional candidates than in 2004, when Bush was at the top of the ticket, but white evangelical protestant backing of G.O.P. candidates was just as great in 2006 as it was four years ago, when the Republicans won the popular vote by a sizable margin.

Well, maybe, but Steven Waldman on BeliefNet wrote "Evangelicals Sour on Politics," where he claimed there was a shift:

Keep in mind, this is not “religious right” voters who shifted. It’s moderate and liberal evangelicals who were concerned about the war and corruption. They’re also conservative on gay marriage and abortion but were more worried about these other issues.

So for me, the bottom line is that there was indeed a meaningful shift among churchgoing Christians toward the Democrats and that there is a real dissatisfaction among many moderate evangelicals with the Republican Party. But because it was triggered by two issues – Iraq and corruption – that cant be counted on in 2008, the Democrats will have to take some fairly dramatic steps to solidify these temporary gains.

What I find interesting is the evidence that there is a block of White Protestant evangelical voters who are swing voters, and they can be teased out by looking at the shift in the "God Gap" from election to election. Ideally, in the chart below, the 2000 figures would be the House Congressional vote, but I just couldn't find them in time for this blog (and I looked!). Between 2002 and 2004 there was a + 4% shift in the God Gap. Between 2004 and 2006 there was a - 7% shift in the God Gap. Some analysts dismiss these numbers as too small to matter, but I disagree, especially given the importance of voting shifts in specific states that help swing national elections.

Some Interesting God Gap Shifts



2000
Republican:
Bush

2000
Democrat:
Gore
2002
Republican:
Congress
2002
Democrat:
Congress
2004
Republican:
Congress
2004
Democrat:
Congress
2006
Republican:
Congress
2006
Democrat:
Congress
White Protestant Evangelicals

68%

30%

68%

23%

74%

25%

70%

28%
                 
God Gap:
Gap=38%
Gap=45%
Gap=49%
Gap=42%
 
 
Shift= + 7%
Shift= + 4%
Shift= - 7%
 

In a follow up survey, BeliefNet found that there were several reasons for Christian evangelical disatisfaction in 2006 with Republican leadership:

One major reason was Iraq. More evangelicals (22.5 percent) said the war was the most important issue, of greater gravity even than abortion (16 percent) and homosexuality (10.7 percent). And even among this conservative group, 74.7 percent said they did not support "President Bush’s approach to Iraq."

Among those evangelicals who specifically said their opinions of Republicans had worsened, 37.6 percent cited the war as the biggest issue. The other big issue was "corruption." 18.2 percent cited that as the issue that mattered to them most, more than 3 times as many who cited abortion or homosexuality [Steven Waldman, "Evangelicals Sour on Politics," On Belief, BeliefNet,
http://www.beliefnet.com/story/203/story_20371_1.html

The votes of the swing shift White Protestant evangelical voters are up for grabs in 2008. There is no reason they might not swing back to Republicans if the Democrats fail to find a message that resonates with White Protestant evangelical voters.

 

Sources

Jonathan Alter, "Out of the Gloom, A Silver Lining," Newsweek, November 20, 2006, p. 67; http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15674305/site/newsweek/.

Chip Berlet, "The Christian Right, Mid-term Elections, & Social Movements," http://www.talk2action.org/story/2006/10/2/163827/258.

Chip Berlet, "New Front in the Culture War: Gay Rights Sacrificed on the Altar of the Mid-Term Elections,", http://www.talk2action.org/story/2006/9/25/191346/717.

, "Evangelicals and the GOP: An UpdateStrongly Republican Group Not Immune to Party's Troubles," Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, October 18, 2006, http://pewresearch.org/obdeck/?ObDeckID=78.

, " The Real Message of the Midterms," Pew Research Center, November 14, 2006, http://pewresearch.org/obdeck/?ObDeckID=91.

Mark J. Rozell, "What Christian Right?" Religion in the News, Spring 2003, Vol. 6, No. 1, http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/csrpl/RINVol6No1/What%20Christian%20Right.htm.

Steven Waldman, "Evangelicals Sour on Politics," On Belief, BeliefNet, http://www.beliefnet.com/story/203/story_20371_1.html


Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip's Blog




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The strength of the movement is disproportionately concentrated in the states of the old Confederacy.

No matter how they dress it up in faux theology and "social issues," can we admit this is about racism, sexism, and the reluctance of the good ol' white boys to give up their privileged status and control? Is there any hope of change without labeling the problems accurately and addressing them directly?

by Psyche on Tue Nov 28, 2006 at 02:40:44 PM EST

OK, It's all about race, gender, and class; and the reluctance to give up power and privilege. But there are also significant number of White women who buy into the frame.
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Tue Nov 28, 2006 at 07:27:59 PM EST
Parent
Suspect the racism (and other authoritarian leanings) are enough to keep them loyal. They're still fighting the Civil War - and civil rights - and school desegregation. Strange thing, I know a kid in the North (PA) who went to a "Christian" school for a couple of years. He came out with a bizarre understanding of the Civil War and slavery and with considerable sympathy for the Confederacy. Revisionist history seems to spread along with the religion.

by Psyche on Wed Nov 29, 2006 at 12:23:02 AM EST
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