The White Evangelical Model For GOTV

A fascinating Monkey Cage post today directs me back to an important piece from my friend Sarah Posner the day after the elections that I somehow missed.

Let’s start with Sarah’s November 5 piece at Religion Dispatches that contrasts the actual 2014 turnout among white evangelicals in southern states with the estimates made earlier by pollster Robert Jones, who predicted a Christian Right Waterloo thanks to declining numbers.

1. ARKANSAS. In his October 17 Atlantic piece, Jones wrote:

In Arkansas, where Republican and freshman Representative Tom Cotton is locked in a tight race with two-term Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, the white evangelical Protestant proportion of the population has dropped from 43 percent to 36 percent.

But preliminary exit polling shows that in Arkansas, 51% of of the electorate was made up of white evangelicals or born-again Christians; 25% of them went for Pryor (who is himself evangelical) while 73% voted for Cotton.

2. GEORGIA. Jones wrote:

In Georgia, where Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn is battling Republican candidate David Perdue for retiring Senator Saxby Chambliss’s seat, white evangelical Protestants made up 30 percent of the population in 2007 but that number is currently down to 24 percent.

Again, preliminary exit polling from Georgia shows that white evangelicals were an outsized share of the electorate, making up 39% of voters. Just 12% of them went for Nunn, 61% for Perdue.

3. KENTUCKY. Jones:

The proportion of white evangelicals in Kentucky has plunged 11 points, from 43 percent to 32 percent; here Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces the Democratic Alison Grimes, the secretary of state.

But according to last night’s preliminary exit polls, in Kentucky, 52% of electorate were white evangelical or born again Christians. Just 30% of them voted for Grimes, and 68% for McConnell.

4. LOUISIANA. Jones:

In Louisiana, where Republican Representative Bill Cassidy is up against three-term Democrat Mary Landrieu, white evangelicals have slipped from being 24 percent of the population to 19 percent.

In exit polling for Louisiana, where the Senate race is headed for a run-off, pollsters did not ask the “evangelical or not” question. Instead, they categorized all white Protestants into a “white Protestant/other Christian” category; that group comprised 32% of the electorate. Just 14% of them voted for Mary Landreiu, while 21% of them voted for Tea Party favorite Rob Maness and 59% for Republican Bill Cassidy.

5. NORTH CAROLINA. Jones:

Likewise, North Carolina has seen a dip in the white evangelical proportion of its population, from 37 percent to 30 percent; here incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan battles Republican Speaker of the North Carolina House Thom Tillis.

Looking, again, at the preliminary exit poll results for North Carolina, 40% of voters identified as white evangelical or born again; only 16% of them voted for Hagan, and 78% for Tillis, the Republican winner.

So whatever the population numbers, it seems white evangelicals continue to punch well above their weight when it comes to voting.

That’s where today’s Monkey Cage post from Lydia Bean comes in. After observing the grass-roots as well as the elite influences that reinforce Christian right voting behavior, she notes:

Campaigns only remind evangelicals what they have already learned from their religious community: that voting Republican is a natural extension of what it means to be a good Christian. This message is not just reinforced from the top-down during campaign season, by Christian Right interest groups and campaign ads. It is also reinforced from the bottom-up by trusted local leaders who are part of people’s everyday lives.

If we want to increase midterm voting among groups who stayed home, we need to ask who the local opinion leaders might be to reach low-propensity voters. What local settings could play the role of an evangelical small group or Bible study? Where do people learn that voting is expected of them, to be a good member of their network, in a context of personal accountability? And what is the organizational vehicle that will identify and develop these local leaders, who will engage a much larger set of low-propensity voters in year-round base-building? You’ve got to hand it to conservative evangelicals: they really have all of this down.

Instead of endlessly predicting the Christian Right’s imminent demise, progressives should go to school on what motivates conservative evangelicals to become and remain politically engaged. They aren’t just going to fade away.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.