Did Democrats forget faith-based outreach?

November 3, 2010

As Democrats conducted a postmortem on the November elections, some
liberal leaders declared that one diagnosis was immediately clear: the
party's outreach to religious voters had been lifeless.

Democrats
took control of Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008 in part
because they wrested many Cath­olics and some white Protestants from the
Republicans' tight grip. Gains among those voters helped elect
Democrats in rural and suburban areas that had long been GOP
strongholds.

But by November 2010, progressive leaders say,
Democrats largely retreated to the same old wonky language to explain
their policies and the same old political strategies to drum up
voters—with predictable results.

"One of the ironies is that we
had huge success with [faith outreach]," said Eric Sapp, a partner at
Eleison Group, a consulting firm that worked on religious outreach for
dozens of Democratic campaigns in 2006 and 2008—but none this year.
"It's part of why we are in power. It's been rough to see us go back to
that pre-2004 strategy that had kept us in the minority."

In the
House, Democrats will be in the minority and will have a smaller
majority in the Senate. Their party's hard-won gains among religious
voters are largely gone. Sixty percent of weekly churchgoers voted for
House GOP candidates on November 2, according to exit polls. Nearly
seven in ten white Prot­estants punched their ballot for the GOP,
reflecting a 6 percent surge from 2008, and up eight points from 2006.

Catholics
swung even harder toward the GOP, according to exit polls, with 54
percent voting for House Republicans, compared to 42 percent in 2008,
and 44 percent in 2006. Catholics and Prot­estants combined to make up
nearly 80 percent of the electorate this year.

Lackluster
commitment from party leaders, a failure to connect their policies with
moral values, and the dire economy all explain Democrats' lack of
success with religious voters, according to politicos and faith leaders.

"The
God gap doesn't explain these election results," said Mike McCurry, a
White House press secretary under Bill Clinton who has encouraged
Democrats' faith-based outreach. "It was driven by real anxiety people
feel about the economy and their future—but there are moral and ethical
components to that, too."

In previous elections, the Democratic
National Committee hired staffers for Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and
evangelical outreach. This year, those jobs were not filled, said Regena
Thomas, the DNC's director of faith and constituent outreach.

Thomas,
a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, said she organized
conference calls and events on religion with black women, state party
chairs and college Democrats. In some areas, however, religion was
subsumed within other programs—such as Hispanic and gay outreach, Thomas
said. "Staff responsible for constituencies were responsible for adding
faith outreach to that," she said.

But McCurry said religion "is
not something you tack on to the end of your game plan. It's
fundamentally at the heart of how you connect with voters, who clearly
drifted from the Democratic Party last night."

Sapp said party
leaders spent little money on religious outreach, signaling to
rank-and-file Democrats that they shouldn't either.

"A lot of
campaigns we worked on in the past wanted to do this stuff, but they
didn't have the funding," he said. "And they worried if they spent a lot
of money on this, they wouldn't get support from the national
committees." Instead, the DNC concentrated on turning out the party's
base—primarily in urban areas—and reconnecting with the first-time
voters who lifted President Obama into office, Sapp added.

"What
does that do for Democratic incumbents and challengers in rural and
nonurban areas?" asked Burns Strider, Sapp's partner at the Eleison
Group and a veteran of Democratic faith outreach.

Independent
liberal groups such as Catholics United battled for several Democratic
candidates through radio ads, phone banks and legal maneuvers. In those
campaigns, the Democrats, all Catholics, were blasted by conservatives
because they voted for health-care reform over the U.S. bishops'
objections. The candidates—Representatives Tom Perriello of Virginia,
Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania and Steve Driehaus of Ohio—all lost
close races.

"Those are folks who are really committed to the
common good, with a strong sense of Catholic social teaching," said
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a national
Catholic social justice lobby. "But they really got lost in whatever
this fear is that is gripping our country."

Stephen Schneck, a
scholar at Catholic University in Washington and a Catholic political
insider, said religious outreach from the DNC or the Demo­cratic
Congressional Campaign Com­mittee could have made a difference in those
races. "I'm not sure I would call it a step backwards," said Schneck of
the party's faith efforts. "But it does seem like there has been a loss
in organization."

Part of that loss, some Democrats say, can be
blamed on the success in 2006 and 2008: many of the people who ran
Democratic faith-outreach programs now work in the Obama administration,
draining an already shallow pool.

But Jim Wallis, a progressive
evangelical who is close to Democratic leaders, said the November 2
results pointed to the party's lack of vision, not networks. "It's a lot
deeper than outreach," Wallis said. "They haven't connected with many
Americans in terms of their daily lives and values. As Proverbs says,
'Where there is no vision, the people perish.' And people are
perishing."  —RNS