As I noted in last week’s Dispatches from Inside the Beltway, the official exit polls sponsored by the media have been skewed toward the Republican party in terms of religion. The exit polls have asked more questions about religion to Republicans in six states so far, and nowhere have they asked Democrats if they were “born again or evangelical.” It is time for the media to jettison this outdated script about religion and fix this bias in the exit polls.
Faith in Public Life has taken the lead in identifying and publicizing this problem, and last week following the Super Tuesday primaries they fielded their own post-election poll in Missouri and Tennessee—a poll that for the first time identified evangelical voters among both Republicans and Democrats. After the poll results were released yesterday, Katie Barge (Communications Director for Faith in Public Life), Rev. Jim Walls (CEO, Sojourners), and Rev. Joel Hunter (Pastor, Northland Church; former president of the Christian Coalition), and I participated in a press call with over 30 reporters to talk about how this bias distorts our understanding of both politics and religion. You can listen to the call here.
The post-election poll found the following important findings:
• Senator Hillary Clinton’s support from white evangelicals surpassed that of Senator Barack Obama’s (MO: 54% to 37%; TN: 78% to 12%).
• Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the GOP has a lock on white evangelical voters, 1 in 3 evangelicals voted in the Democratic primary, something the official exit polls could not tell us. To put that into perspective, that’s 160,000 overlooked evangelical voters in Missouri and 182,000 in Tennessee (a number greater than, for example, all African-American voters or all voters over 65 in the Democratic primaries in each state).
• Importantly, the poll also found that majorities of both Democratic and Republican evangelical voters want a broader agenda that goes beyond abortion and same-sex marriage to include ending poverty, protecting the environment, and tackling HIV/AIDS.
These important numbers are supported by findings from other research I and others have done over the last two years. Here are three lessons the media needs to learn in order to get the religion story right this year:
1. White evangelicals are an important constituency for both parties, and are no longer a lock for the GOP.
• Evangelicals are an important part of the Democratic base. In both 2004 and 2006, Democratic candidates actually received slightly more votes from white evangelicals than from black Protestants (an important base group for Democrats). In 2004, 14% of John Kerry’s votes came from evangelicals, compared to 13% from black Protestants (Green 2004). In 2006, 11.3% of Democratic House Candidate votes came from evangelicals, compared to 11% from black Protestants (NEP Exit Poll, 2006).
• Young evangelicals’ (under 30) affiliation with the GOP has dropped 15 points since 2005, from 55% to 40% (Pew 2006).
2. White evangelicals are not monolithic, even on hot-button social issues.
The one-fifth, one-third, one-half formula: up to half of evangelicals are in play. In research I co-authored with Rachel Laser, Randy Brinson, and Joe Battaglia at Third Way, we found that evangelicals are actually 1/5 progressive, 1/3 moderate, and 1/2 conservative, a patter that held up even over hot-button social issues. These evangelical progressives and moderates make up half of evangelicals, 52 million adults.
3. There is an emerging movement among rank and file evangelicals to move beyond the narrow political issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.
The American Values Survey (AVS 2006), which I directed at the Center for American Values in Public Life at People for the American Way Foundation, found that 8 in 10 evangelicals thought issues like poverty and affordable health care were more important in the country today than issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. The old religious right leaders who are clinging to the narrow agenda of abortion and same-sex marriage are increasingly out of touch, and no longer calling the shots. AVS also found, for example, that a plurality (44%) of evangelicals said that James Dobson and Pat Robertson did not speak for them. Also tellingly, nearly a quarter of young evangelicals (under 30) said they did not know enough about these leaders to answer the question.
The evidence has been stacking up for some time now, as Rev. Jim Wallis put it on the call yesterday, that “evangelicals are leaving the religious right in droves.” While there have been some important media stories that have gotten this admittedly complex phenomenon right, the skewed exit polling we have now is sure to fuel biased reporting. If the major media outlets that fund the exit polls want to keep wrapping themelves in self-congratulatory slogans such as “fair and balanced” and “best political team on television,” they need to let go of their old script, dig deeper, and give us the unbiased coverage of religion and politics we deserve.