WPost team looks at politics in 2014, sees zero folks in pews

It’s time to set the wayback (actually, it’s WABAC) machine for the year 2003, when editors of The Atlantic Monthly published one of the most famous anecdotal ledes in the recent history of American politics.

The article was called “Blue Movie: The “morality gap” is becoming the key variable in American politics” and the essay opened like this:

Early in the 1996 election campaign Dick Morris and Mark Penn, two of Bill Clinton’s advisers, discovered a polling technique that proved to be one of the best ways of determining whether a voter was more likely to choose Clinton or Bob Dole for President. Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter’s life.

Respondents who took the “liberal” stand on three of the five questions supported Clinton over Dole by a two-to-one ratio; those who took a liberal stand on four or five questions were, not surprisingly, even more likely to support Clinton. The same was true in reverse for those who took a “conservative” stand on three or more of the questions. (Someone taking the liberal position, as pollsters define it, dismisses the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, admits to looking at pornography, doesn’t look down on a married person having an affair, regards sex before marriage as morally acceptable, and views religion as not a very important part of daily life.) According to Morris and Penn, these questions were better vote predictors — and better indicators of partisan inclination — than anything else except party affiliation or the race of the voter. …

Later on, of course, as the red zip code vs. blue zip code warfare became more refined, pollsters began to focus on a more refined research angle — which became known as “The Pew Gap.” The basic truth: The best way to predict the behavior of white voters — irregardless of their religious traditions — was to find out how often they attended worship services. The more often they were in a religious sanctuary, the more likely they were to vote for culturally conservative candidates (usually Republicans, in recent decades).

In other words, a person’s religious beliefs and practice matter, when it comes time to predict her or his actions in a voting booth.

This brings me to a recent story in The Washington Post, which ran under this headline: “Democrats seek to reshape midterm electorate along lines of a presidential year.” The lede is perfectly obvious, to anyone who lives here in Beltway-land or reads news produced by the scribes who gather here:

Democrats have a problem and everyone knows it. President Obama calls it a “congenital disease.” If they can’t control it, Obama could spend the final years of his presidency battling not only a Republican House but also a Republican Senate.

Democrats don’t vote in midterm elections. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the core of the Democratic coalition is made up of many people who turn out to vote only in presidential elections. The Republican coalition — older and whiter — suffers less from midterm falloff.

So what is wrong with this story? What is the crucial element that the Post team totally ignored?

Do I need to ask that question? Let’s put it this way: It’s a factor that is not included in the following material.

So much has been made of the building blocks the president assembled to win his two elections — the outpouring of voters younger than 30; the long lines at precincts in African American communities; the support he engendered among the rising Hispanic population; the growing support for him and Democrats generally among unmarried women. …

Obama hopes to stir his base to action and in the past two weeks has been trying to push all the buttons. He invoked the slaying of civil rights workers in the 1960s to implore a largely African American audience in New York to take advantage of their right to vote. At the White House a few days before that, he pushed the issue of pay equity for women. Around the country, he and other Democrats have seized on raising the minimum wage to draw a contrast with Republicans. He chastised House Republicans in a statement this past week for not moving on immigration reform.

But the president, hobbled by weak approval ratings, may be a drag on Democrats in some of the places his party will be fighting hardest this fall. And Republicans appear more motivated, spurred by their opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

Right, right. The Democrats have a strong lede among unmarried women and with young voters. This implies, although the story does not mention it, that Republicans are strongest among married women and middle-aged and older voters.

Now, what is a crucial factor that tends to rise with marriage and with age? Is there any evidence that the factors discovered back in 1996 and in subsequent elections have changed? Yes, I know. The American public is becoming more pluralistic and more progressive on moral and religious issues, especially among the — wait for it — young and unmarried. Yes, I have heard of the “nones.”

My point is not whether the current climate is good or bad for Democrats or Republicans. My point is that it is strange for the Post team to wade into these issues and totally ignore the role of religion in American political culture. For example, what are the most controversial issues linked to Obamacare and the Health and Human Services mandates that support it? Want to guess?

The story does contain hints at the big picture:

Republicans need to pick up a net of six seats to take control of the Senate. For Democrats, the most endangered seats are in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. Incumbents Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mark Begich in Alaska are in difficult campaigns, most in states Obama twice lost badly.

Lots of red zip codes in those races. Right?

Read the whole story, please. I’m not saying that this long, long story needed to be dominated by religion issues. No way.

I am simply asking how the “pew gap” factor could be totally ignored. So, read it all and look for any sign that the reporters and editors who produced this feature gave any thought to the well-documented — even if changing — role of religion in elections at the regional and national levels.

Good luck with that. Haunted?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • momof3intenn

    I think you meant regardless instead of irregardless. :-) Keep up the great work of finding “ghosts.”

    • FW Ken

      While we are at it, do the Dems have a strong “lede”, or “lead” among certain demographics?

      ?


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