In 1960, Catholic Democratic leaders were fractured over the presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy. On the one hand, governors David L. Lawrence of Pennsylvania and Pat Brown of California had not thrown their mighty support behind the young Catholic senator. On the other hand, Connecticut state party chairman John M. Bailey and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley had come out for Kennedy. The rift seems to expose the decline of Catholic voters in the United States.
A reporter could easily have written such a story in the first half of 1960. But of course it would have misled readers in a major way. While Lawrence and Brown did not endorse Kennedy until the Democratic convention, most of the party’s Catholic bosses had. And, uh, well, many Catholics voted for Kennedy in November.
Why am I writing about this? Because reporters continue to make the same mistake when it comes to evangelical leaders in the Republican Party. They leap to the conclusion that because a few prominent evangelical leaders favor different candidates, evangelicals have lost their political clout. Here is how Louise Roug of The Los Angeles Times described the Republican race in South Carolina:
Evangelicals have an opportunity Saturday to remind party leaders about their record as kingmakers. But conservative leaders have turned against each other in a split that may further undermine the political power of evangelicals who, with the decline of the once-formidable Christian Coalition of America and other groups, have lost influence within the GOP.
“There’s a battle for the heart and the soul of the Republican Party,” Beam said. “I’m very concerned.”
Roug’s nut graph is a case study in media hyperbole. The fact that evangelical leaders support different candidates means they “have turned against each other.” This lack of political unanimity among evangelical leaders means that evangelicals might “los[e] influence within the GOP.”
Roug has presented readers a view of the 2008 campaign that is simplistic at best.
Evangelical leaders did not coalesce around Mike Huckabee, yet he won overwhelmingly among evangelical voters in Iowa. In fact, they delivered the state for him. In other states, as in New Hampshire and Michigan, the effect of the split among evangelical leaders has been unclear.
It’s tempting for reporters to talk with a few political leaders and write a story which says that their followers are divided. That also implies that some kind of united, monolithic “evangelical” vote existed in the first place. You end up leaving readers in the dark.