Did The Democrats Punt On Faith Outreach?

One day after the Democrats lost the House in the midterms, the knives were out: the gurus of the party’s faith outreach of 2006 and 2008 were claiming that the party neglected their advice.

Daniel Burke of Religion News Service sums up those sentiments:

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 are not filled, said the Rev. 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.”

Of course losing the wonk and gaining the passion can be accomplished without invoking religion. Political organizer Marshall Ganz, architect of the grassroots organizing model for Obama’s 2008 campaign, writes in the LA Times:

The nation was ready for transformation, but the president gave us transaction. And, as is the case with leadership failures, much of the public’s anger, disappointment and frustration has been turned on a leader who failed to lead.

Obama and his team made three crucial choices that undermined the president’s transformational mission. First, he abandoned the bully pulpit of moral argument and public education. Next, he chose to lead with a politics of compromise rather than advocacy. And finally, he chose to demobilize the movement that elected him president. By shifting focus from a public ready to drive change — as in “yes we can” — he shifted the focus to himself and attempted to negotiate change from the inside, as in “yes I can.”

While it’s clear Democrats’ losses were due in part to a loss of faith — voters’ faith in Obama, in the economy, in the Democrats’ ability to fix it, and probably a host of anxieties unrelated to Democrats’ actual performance — it’s not clear that their alleged failure to reach out specifically to religious voters (whatever that means) caused their losses.

Eric Sapp, a partner in the Eleison Group, whose prior firm Common Ground Strategies, claims credit for increased numbers of religious voters pulling the Democratic lever post-2004, complained in the Huffington Post:

Democrats did faith work differently than Republicans had in the past, focusing on authenticity of narrative and humility in how they brought faith into the public square. And the results were overwhelming. Democrats saw major gains nationally in their share of the White Protestant and Catholic votes, but most striking were the races where state parties and specific candidates made faith outreach a priority . . . .

Based on that success, the DCCC decided to make faith outreach one of the key components of their extremely successful Red to Blue program in ’08, and both Obama and Clinton expanded on this work as Democrats swept into office by huge margins last cycle.

Unfortunately, once Democrats took power, instead of building on our success, we went back to the political strategies that had failed us in the past. Funding and staff were routed away from faith and values work and directly almost exclusively into base turnout. And the results were disastrous.

I’d note here that three of the four congressional candidates listed as clients on Eleison’s website — Tom Perriello (VA), Bobby Bright (AL), and Travis Childers (MS) — lost their reelection bids, and a fourth, Heath Shuler (NC), distanced himself from his own party and hinted that he’d challenge Nancy Pelosi for the House leadership position. Bright and Childers were victims of the Blue Dog “blowout,” as Ari Melber called it, noting, “The Blue Dog caucus was literally cut in half yesterday, from 54 to 26 members. Now people can argue whether that is good or bad—but no serious political observer can say the strategy worked.” In other words, there was a lot more at play there than religion. Could “authenticity” and “humility” have saved the Blue Dogs, or any Democrat?

Mark Silk suggests blame has been placed at the White House’s feet — something the White House denies — that faith outreach faltered. Burke’s piece suggests the DNC focused too much on base mobilization at the expense of faith outreach, an explanation that makes little sense — Harry Reid, after all, beat the uber-religious Sharron Angle by mobilizing the base, not talking about how religious he is.

“Religious” voters moving more Republican than Democratic is not enough proof that they would have responded to more God talk from Democrats, or to more attention paid to them as Methodists or Catholics, as opposed to just voters anxious about making rent or mortgage payments. The election results are complicated, voters’ impulses are complicated, and reporters, analysts, strategists, and party insiders are going to be poring over exit polls for a long time in an effort to figure that out. It’s premature to blame the election results on the Democrats’ failure to talk about religion, without the evidence to back it up.