Christians not cemented in GOP

Some conservative pundits, like Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum, are using exit poll data to imply that conservative Christians are still solidly in the Republican camp. I wish that were true, but it’s not. Exit poll interpretations notwithstanding, the votes of a sizeable minority of evangelicals and a near-majority of Catholics are back in play. In a forthcoming American revival of split-ticket and swing voting, conservative Christians are going to be inside and outside the Republican tent. It’s up to Republican Party leaders and candidates to recruit worthy candidates and develop issue positions that will appeal to religious voters.

Some conservative pundits, like Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum, are using exit poll data to imply that conservative Christians are still solidly in the Republican camp. I wish that were true, but it’s not. Exit poll interpretations notwithstanding, the votes of a sizeable minority of evangelicals and a near-majority of Catholics are back in play. In a forthcoming American revival of split-ticket and swing voting, conservative Christians are going to be inside and outside the Republican tent. It’s up to Republican Party leaders and candidates to recruit worthy candidates and develop issue positions that will appeal to religious voters.

Minimalists like Drum use exit polls to boast that Democrats got “only” three more percentage points from white evangelicals than they received in 2004. They also crow that Democrats picked up “just” six points among Catholics. Armchair strategists who minimize shifts like these have never had to put together a real-world minimum winning coalition in a tough campaign. Losing six more points of the Catholic vote in a close race almost anywhere in America challenges any Republican. Ask George Allen.

But Drum’s real mistake is relying too much on exit polls to reveal how the chase after religious voters is going. Unless you’ve read David Kuo’s “Tempting Faith,” Andrew Sullivan’s “The Conservative Soul,” the blogs, surveys and commentaries at the website Beliefnet, and Christianity Today, and even the scorching quotes about Republicans from leaders like James Dobson, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Roberta Combs of the Christian Coaliton, you don’t have the whole picture.

Beliefnet conducted an online survey that challenges the exit poll results. (Yes, I know, I know: Non-random online surveys can be flawed, but exit polls have flaws too.) This survey didn’t rely on label segmentation (Are you an evangelical? Are you born again?), but rather asked two theological questions that could be used inferentially to identify Christian voters that Beliefnet chose to label evangelical. (The questions: 1. Do you accept Jesus as personal Lord and savior who will give you eternal life? and 2. Is the Bible the inerrant word of God?) This multiple question approach is favored by most religious insider researchers over the political pollsters’ labeling approach. One interesting by-product of this technique is that it can bring Catholics under the religious right banner that would never self-identify with Protestant labels like evangelical or born again.

This Beliefnet survey, as others, confirmed that evangelical Christians are politically conservative and Republican in their partisanship. But some of the survey’s questions revealed that Republicans have fallen from political grace. Thirty percent of these evangelicals reported having voted for “fewer Republicans” this time than in the past and 61 percent said they hold less positive views of Republicans now than in the past. Put two and two together and you see that Republicans may have dodged a bullet.

This survey also revealed important insights on Christian followers’ views of their self-professed leaders. The survey found that evangelical voters have antipathy for some well-known and conservative old-school firebrands like Jerry Falwell while they express more positive views of moderate new leaders like Rick Warren. This lesson should not be lost on Republican leaders and strategists trying to understand and communicate with Christian voters. The guard has changed and there is a new breed of leader that deserves a prominent seat at the table. This survey and others also suggest that war, social injustice, and corruption are also turning some religious voters away from straight GOP support.

There’s a challenge ahead for Republicans seeking Christian support. And Christians are showing that they won’t allow their support to be taken for granted.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.