WPost still gets ‘Julia’ vote, but what about church ladies?

The other day I wrote a post about a Washington Post story about the upcoming elections that managed to do something really interesting: It addressed the challenges Democrats are facing as they try to frame issues going into the midterm elections in ways that would inspire their voters, yet managed to do so without mentioning the ongoing “pew gap” factor.

You remember the pew gap don’t you? It’s the trend, during recent decades, in which people who frequently attend worship services (especially among white voters) tend to vote for morally and culturally conservative candidates. And the opposite?

Thus, a key passage in that Post report discussed:

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.

The story contained tons of valid and interesting info. I simply wanted to know how the Post team could address this topic with zero references to the impact of religion on American public life and, yes, voting patterns. For example, I suggested that there might be a religion ghost linked to the fact that Democrats do so well with single women (think “Julia”), while Republicans draw strong support among married women.

Now, the big paper here in Beltway land is back with a long A1 report under the headline: “Women could be critical to key races, and both parties are going all out to get their votes.” Here’s a key block of summary material:

Republicans have watched with rising alarm as female voters, especially younger and unmarried ones, have moved toward ­Democratic hopefuls. Democrats have exploited inarticulate or sexist remarks by some Republicans and harsh antiabortion measures passed in GOP-led legislatures or sponsored by party candidates.

In Washington, Democratic lawmakers have also pushed bills designed to draw a contrast, including this month’s Paycheck Fairness Act, which died in the Senate. President Obama instead signed two executive orders designed to advance equal pay. As a result, the gender gap has grown in recent election years to Democrats’ advantage. Women make up a larger percentage of the electorate than men, they are disproportionately likely to go to the polls in midterm election years, and they are more likely to vote Democratic than men are to vote Republican.

Notice that, at this point, the story is making little or no effort to discuss the divisions inside the women’s vote, which is hardly monolithic.

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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?

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NPR stumbles on GOP and Darwinian orthodoxy

Here’s a shocker, but not really. More Democrats than Republicans believe in evolution, or so says a survey from the Pew Research Center. Overall, Pew says:

…six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that ‘humans and other living things have evolved over time,’ while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that ‘humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.’ The share of the general public that says that humans have evolved over time is about the same as it was in 2009, when Pew Research last asked the question.

The predictable party gap seems of interest to many, though mostly political pundits.

National Public Radio is not content to leave speculation to mere political bloviators, however, and trumpets the change in party affiliation of creationists as a major political issue:

A new national survey showing that the share of Republicans who believe in evolution has tumbled from 54 to 43 percent over the past four years comes at an inopportune time.

The Pew Research poll suggests that the GOP, already struggling with an identity crisis and facing ferocious internal battles, is out of sync on the issue with independents and young voters, who are far more likely to believe in the science of evolution than their forebears.

NPR raises what it considers the key question:

But just how politically significant is the finding, which shows that the evolution belief gap between Republicans and Democrats has since 2009 grown from 10 percentage points to 24 points?

Now there are all sorts of interesting — and interested — people who could address the topic. People who are experienced in science and theology, or people who hold informed opinions about evolution or creationism. Instead, the first “expert” sought out by NPR is a political consultant, albeit a Republican one:

For Republican strategists like Whit Ayres, however, the evolution results are politically insignificant. More than anything, he says, it reflects the trend of both parties gravitating toward their more extreme wings, which, in the GOP, includes evangelical Christians. He argues that it is unlikely to define the GOP negatively or otherwise in any sustaining way.

“It’s not a particularly surprising result, especially if you follow Gallup data on how Americans interpret the Bible,” says Ayres, of North Star Opinion Research. “There’s a significant minority of Americans who believe that the Bible is the actual true word of God.”

Apart from a grammatical flaw that always annoys me — did they really talk to Ayres or someone “like” him? — why is his view on how many Americans believe “the Bible is the actual true word of God” more useful than that of Randall Balmer or George Barna or someone else who “gets” debates about doctrine and science?

NPR does link to the Gallup numbers, but again, is there another, better voice? If so, you won’t find it here.

And what about the “political” implications of this interesting and crucial passage?

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The New York Times hides abortion editorial on front page

Yesterday after the House of Representatives voted 228 to 196 to limit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, I was surprised to find the following headline at the New York Times:

Democrats Defend Killing of Viable Fetuses to Appease Vocal Base

Only kidding, of course. As Matthew J. Franck of First Things wrote, that’s a New York Times headline we’ll never see. The real headline used exhibits the partisan editorializing we’ve come to expect from the Old Gray Lady:

G.O.P. Pushes New Abortion Limits to Appease Vocal Base

That was the title on the web version. A note says that a version of the article appeared on page A1 of the New York print edition with this headline:

Unfazed by 2012, G.O.P. Is Seeking Abortion Limits

You’ll search in vain for a label indicating the piece is “news analysis,” the fig leaf that allows editorials to be presented as news stories. Instead, the feature by Jeremy W. Peters is one long editorial sigh of frustration that a majority of Republicans are still, despite having lost the last presidential election, sticking with their pro-life agenda.

After Republicans lost the presidential election and seats in both the House and the Senate last year, many in the party offered a stern admonishment: If we want to broaden our appeal, steer clear of divisive social and cultural issues.

Yet after the high-profile murder trial of an abortion doctor in Philadelphia this spring, many Republicans in Washington and in state capitals across the country seem eager to reopen the emotional fight over a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. …

Much of the movement in recent weeks can be linked to the outcry over the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia physician who was convicted last month of first-degree murder for cutting the spines of babies after botched abortions.

His case, coming on top of successful efforts to curtail reproductive rights in several states over the last three years, has reinvigorated the anti-abortion movement to a degree not seen in years, advocates on both sides of the issue said.

If you were still wondering why it took an epic shaming by GetReligionista Mollie Hemingway to get journalists to cover the Gosnell story, there’s a hint. You can almost hear the frustration in the New York Times newsroom: “This is the type of nonsense that comes from bringing attention to Gosnell.”

But it gets better. Check out the next paragraph:

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“Nobody cares” about Obama’s abortion beliefs? Really?

I was taping the Crossroads podcast earlier and host Todd Wilken asked me something about why reporters were mishandling the news that Senate candidate Richard Mourdock believes even a human life conceived in rape can be a “gift from God.” I was kind of at a loss. I reject the idea, advanced by some critics, that it’s just partisan bias or an attempt to help President Barack Obama in the final days of his campaign. But the coverage was so over-the-top, it was hard to defend at all.

My big beef in this whole thing is not so much that pro-life candidates are being asked tough questions. Abortion is a super tough topic and one deserving of tough questions. What chaps my hide is that reporters are incapable of asking any tough questions of pro-choice candidates.

To that end, you should be sure to read this piece by Trevin Wax headlined “10 Questions a Pro-Choice Candidate is Never Asked by the Media.” Please. Read it.

A few days ago, we remembered the data that show that about 25 percent of Americans say they favor no restrictions on abortion, about 20 percent of Americans say they support consistent protection of the unborn and the rest want something in between. I think the problem with the media might be that they’re incredibly familiar with that group who favor no restrictions on abortion and have trouble looking at things from a different angle. As tmatt noted long ago, citing a Pew Forum poll, there are even fascinating numbers that show how many DEMOCRATS want to see strong restrictions on abortion rights.

I was reminded of all that during this fascinating exchange on Twitter between a political reporter at the Weekly Standard, John McCormack, and a religion reporter at Newsweek/Daily Beast, David Sessions. It began with McCormack complaining about disparities in press coverage. I’ll just reproduce the exchange here:

John McCormack: At the very least, someone might want to get the president to say precisely what his position on late-term abortion is (link)

David Sessions: Seriously, nobody cares.

John McCormack:  What do you mean?

John McCormack: People don’t care about abortion? Are you an idiot?

David Sessions: the weird idea that its “corrupt” not to ask about Obama’s abortion position when we know it & it’s not a campaign issue.

David Sessions: his position is plenty clear to people who care about that issue.

John McCormack: Please tell me: What is Obama’s position on third-trimester abortions?

John McCormack: He’s evaded the issue (link) … You may yawn at killing of almost born human beings. Others think it’s an atrocity.

David Sessions: who cares? If you care what the answer to that is, his position on 1st-trimester abortions is bad enough.

John McCormack: Who cares? So you can’t say.

John McCormack: Country may be divided on abortion early in pregnancy. 86% say it should be illegal late in pregnancy per Gallup.

John McCormack:  But nothing to see here. “Who cares?” You are a disgrace to journalism.

David Sessions: it’s absurd to pretend like this a huge moral press failure when it’s not even close to being a campaign issue.

John McCormack:  It is a human rights issue. What is/is not a campaign issue depends on what the media asks the candidates.

John McCormack:  And it is a gross double standard for the press to make IN & MO Senate candidates abortion stances the BIGGEST STORY EVER…

John McCormack: without even thinking for a second whether Obama himself might hold extreme positions on abortion.

David Sessions: I completely agree about that.

OK, so hopefully each side on this journalistic tussle can learn something. I want to add a few thoughts. First, people really care about abortion. It may not be the single most important issue in every singe mind when we go into the voting booth, but of all the issues out there, it’s a biggie. Consistently. If you are a religion reporter, it’s good to know this. Also, plenty of people who are fine with first-trimester abortion are not fine with third-trimester abortion. You should probably know that, too, so saying “If you care what the answer is about his third-trimester abortion position, his position on 1st-trimester abortions is bad enough” is just not true.

OK, as to the charge that abortion is not an Obama campaign issue, I don’t really know what to say other than you might want to watch even a tiny little snippet of any portion of the Democratic National Convention from this year. (Some jokingly called it an Abortion Jamboree or Abortion-palooza.) Also, as a swing state resident, I would say that abortion ads are the number one thing I’m seeing from Obama’s campaign. I’ve received glossy mailers, emails and a deluge of TV ads. Trust me, it’s possibly his biggest issue that he’s running on in Virginia. If you are a national reporter, you should probably have some familiarity with this. Or as the New York Times put it last week:

According to data from Kantar Media/CMAG, the Obama campaign and Democratic groups have run commercials relating to abortion about 30,000 times since July 2 — about 10 percent of their ads — including one that falsely claimed Mr. Romney’s opposition to abortion extended to cases of rape and incest.

The ad with the false claim was still running in Virginia as recently as last week, I’m pretty sure (although it’s possible I saw it on a DVR’d program from earlier in the month).

Now, as McCormack writes, even if it weren’t a major plank of President Obama’s campaign, it’s still important enough as a human rights issue to cover. To put it another way, that last debate showed us that neither candidate disagrees with each other on the U.S. policy of using drones to target terrorists. Does that mean that since it’s not a campaign issue, it shouldn’t be covered? Hardly. I think the press can rightly judge certain topics of importance meriting coverage even if votes aren’t being won or lost on them. But, again, that’s not even the case with abortion coverage.

But at least we can all agree that however this topic is covered, it should be done so in a balanced way. If the press posture is that it’s extreme to hold the position that Mourdock holds, the one that only 20 percent of the country shares, where does that put President Obama and his positions? And if only one set of political actors is treated as extreme, as needing to apologize for a position, as if their existence on a party ticket is scandalous, and the other side is treated as if “nobody cares” about their positions, how good is that?

Photo of a disinterested child via Shutterstock.


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