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Obama’s atheist problem

Fresh Gallup data make it clear that President Obama is hemorrhaging support among white atheists. The president’s vote is down 10 points since 2008 among whites who profess no religion—more than among any segment of non-Hispanic white voters, except single white men and non-Christian whites.

Atheists and non-Christian whites constitute some 13 percent of the overall electorate. Almost one in five white voters fell into this category in 2008. Put differently, this vital segment was as large as the African-American vote in 2008, and larger than the Latino vote. Consider another data point revealing the growth of this movement: A few years ago, Publishers Weekly reported that sales of atheist books were outstripping those of religious books. If any more confirmation of the trend were needed, Wiley & Sons will soon be publishing Atheism for Dummies.

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Reclaiming the godless must be a priority. The campaign has a religious outreach coordinator, but who serves to rally the atheist community? Chicago needs a strategy, and it needs one quickly if it harbors any hope of securing the kind of support the president needs from white voters in November.

Atheists are alienated. Four years ago, they saw an erudite former law professor from an elite university and assumed he must be one of them. Moreover, he was running in the wake of a Republican who constantly injected his religious beliefs into the public dialogue. For obvious reasons, Romney is downplaying his religiosity, while the president’s allies defend him against charges of being a Muslim by celebrating his Christianity. Moreover, the president himself has been seen attending religious functions regularly.

A strategy to win back atheists requires changes in both rhetoric and policy. The president should stop ending his speeches by imploring a nonexistent God to bless America (and his audience). Consider an Oval Office address summoning Americans to overcome their irrational exuberance for the divine. Urge an end to tax deductions for contributions to religious institutions. Although Christmas comes but once a year, and well after the election, it’s never too early to join the war on that holiday.

And don’t ignore the identity politics. Sadly, Christopher Hitchens is no longer with us, but the White House could announce that his masterwork, God Is Not Great, is high on the president’s summer reading list. Follow that with a Medal of Freedom for Richard Dawkins and a dinner featuring him and the other two living horsemen of the new atheism to help cement the president’s ties to this influential community.

OK. STOP RIGHT THERE. All the facts in the first two paragraphs are true. Obama’s support among whites with no religion is down more than in all but a couple of subgroups of whites, and there are more of these folks than Latinos.

But the conclusions, and the strategies stemming from those facts, are absurd.

Yet that is precisely the manner in which too much election analysis proceeds. Find some segment of the electorate — those who make over $150,000, waitress moms, office-park dads, yuppies — whose support seems to be ebbing or flowing. Assume they are motivated by some unified and coherent worldview arising from the characteristics your description points to. (The fact that a group can be defined by particular characteristics does not make those characteristics relevant to any particular behavior — say, voting. In other words, the fact that support has dropped among white atheists does not necessarily mean that decline is causally linked either to their whiteness or to their atheism.) Then make some guesses about what might appeal to that group, with little regard for how those tactics could affect the overall strategy, or any other critical segment of the electorate.

It’s a recipe for foolishness, but one I see followed all too often.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.