Democrats Win Bigger Share of Religious Vote

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 11, 2006

As the results of the midterm elections sank in this week, religious leaders across the ideological spectrum found something they could agree on: The "God gap" in American politics has narrowed substantially.

Religious liberals contended that a concerted effort by Democrats since 2004 to appeal to people of faith had worked minor wonders, if not electoral miracles, in races across the country.

Religious conservatives disagreed, arguing that the Republican Party lost religious voters rather than the Democrats winning them.

Either way, the national exit polls told a dramatic story of changing views in the pews: Democrats recaptured the Catholic vote they had lost two years ago. They sliced the GOP's advantage among weekly churchgoers to 12 percentage points, down from 18 points in 2004 congressional races and 22 points in the 2004 presidential contest. Democrats even siphoned off a portion of the Republican Party's most loyal base, white evangelical Protestants.

"The God gap definitely didn't disappear, but it did narrow. And it narrowed in part because evangelical voters had major questions about the direction of the country," argued Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

In House races in 2004, 74 percent of white evangelicals voted for Republicans and 25 percent for Democrats, a 49-point spread, according to exit polls. This year, Republicans received 70 percent of the white evangelical vote and Democrats got 28 percent, a 42-point spread.

Democratic activists joyfully compared the overall seven-point shift in the evangelical vote to the inroads that President Bush made in a core Democratic constituency -- African Americans -- in battleground states in 2004. "Boy, have we come a long way since 2004," said Mara Vanderslice, who was director of religious outreach for Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign.

"We still have a long way to go, but what this election showed is that Democrats can begin to compete for the evangelical vote. Moving seven points within a community that large can absolutely swing tight races," she said.

Evangelical leaders blamed corruption and big spending by Congress -- rather than the party's positions on social issues such as same-sex marriage -- for the GOP's defeat.

Evangelical Christians are "fed up with the Republican leadership, particularly in the House," said the Rev. Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. "They're disgusted that Republicans came to Washington and failed to behave any better than Democrats once they got their snouts in the trough."

Roberta Combs, chairman of the Christian Coalition, said responsibility for the GOP's loss of the House and Senate "goes right back to the leadership, the corruption among Republicans."

And James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, issued a statement saying that "many of the Values Voters of '04 simply stayed at home this year" because the Republican Party has "consistently ignored the constituency that put them in power."

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