The Faith Outreach Canard

Following up on last week’s post about the complaints of Democratic political consultants that their advice to reach out to religious voters was not heeded, thus causing the election losses, a closer look at the numbers fails to demonstrate a causal link.

At the Huffington Post, pollsters Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox of Public Religion Research write:

Faced with significant Democratic defeats, however, some activists who advise Democrats on religious outreach are succumbing to the temptation to claim that the GOP victories are entirely attributable to a lack of faith organizing by Democrats. Take for example, the arguments made by Eric Sapp, founding partner of the Eleison Group, who the RNS article notes worked doing faith outreach on a number of Democratic campaigns in 2006 and 2008 but not in 2010. In both the RNS interview and in an article on Huffington Post, Sapp argues for a causal link between lackluster faith outreach in this election cycle and Democratic losses; his conclusion: “the results were disastrous.” To support this argument, Sapp claims the following:

Compared to ’06, Democrats nationally saw a 14 point drop in White Protestant support, 14 point drop with White evangelicals, and a whopping 20 point decline with Catholics.

But there are two major problems with this argument: first, it’s factually inaccurate — the numbers are simply wrong. While Democrats experienced significant losses compared to the last mid-term election in 2006, which was a good year for Democrats across the board, Sapp overstates the losses by a factor of two. The actual decreases in support between 2006 and 2010 for Democratic candidates in the House were 8 points among all white Protestants (37 percent to 29 percent), 8 points among white evangelical Christians (28 percent to 20 percent), and 11 points among Catholics (55 percent to 44 percent).

Second, it’s theoretically untenable. Assigning the lack of religious outreach any primary, causal role in this particular election is simply not a credible argument, given the economic context, comparable losses among other important demographic groups, and the particular makeup of the 2010 electorate.

At the Monkey Cage, political scientist John Sides observes that GOP victories in swing districts with Democratic incumbents had other causes:

GOP gains had much more to do a simpler fact: when the political winds are blowing against a party, it’s the incumbents in the swing districts that are most likely to be blown out of office.

And his colleague Eric McGhee notes that 2010 looks like a reverse of 2006 — when Democrats made big congressional gains at a time when a Republican president was falling out of favor. Sapp, in his post-election lament that the Democrats didn’t listen to him enough, blames these losses on the Democrats’ lack of faith outreach. But as the political scientists note, there’s no proof that this was the problem. And given the across-the-board Democratic gains in the years Sapp cites as proof that his prescription works, there’s no evidence that his prescription would provide a cure to what ails the Democrats now.