UNITY, Ohio – In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, a stark billboard sat on the edge of a cornfield in this small eastern Ohio town. White letters on a black background proclaimed “I saw that. God.”
Candidate Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in 2008 captured 43 percent of voters who attend religious services regularly, up from the 39 percent who supported John Kerry four years earlier, according to exit polling by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life.
That “God vote” support helped them to win in Ohio, as well as in Indiana and Florida.
This year, Democrats have a “God vote” deficit, despite the hard work of Burns Strider, founding partner of the Eleison Group and former religious outreach director for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
“I am not surprised by the polling in this cycle,” said Strider, pointing to a Pew report showing an overall drop in support of Democrats by religious voters. “It isn’t Armageddon yet, but it is the task of party activists to keep having broad, open and honest dialogue with the faith voters.”
Polls across the board show that the more religiously observant people are, the more likely they are to disapprove of the president's job performance, says Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University.
Many of these values voters believed Obama was different from others in his party, Rozell explained. “In 2008, he really seemed to understand ‘God talk.’ His evangelical style of discourse made him seem authentic to many of the religious voters who supported him.”
Values voters are not the only “God vote” the president is losing: His support among Jewish voters has dropped into dangerous territory.
Jewish voters are less than thrilled with the Obama administration and its foreign policy, “which could translate into discontent with the Democratic Party in the midterm elections,” said Jeff Brauer, a Keystone College political science professor.
“What is at issue is the administration's new openness to the Muslim world while maintaining a very icy relationship with and directing harsh criticism towards the government of Israel,” he explained.
America’s Jewish vote is small – Jews make up less than 3 percent of the population – but its concentration in California, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Massachusetts makes it an important voting bloc in key House and Senate races, he said.
“Religious groups are often crucial elements of electoral coalitions – the closer the election, the more they can matter,” said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron who studies religion and American politics.
Obama the candidate was all style and promise of being different; Obama the president has advanced policies that make many of the faithful uncomfortable.
“In the end, the so-called values voters care about policy more than style,” said Rozell.
According to Bert Rockman, a Purdue University political science professor, “There is a general pulling-away from the Democrats because of anger about the current state of affairs and pessimism about the direction of the country.”
Rockman isn’t terribly surprised to see that tendency especially strong among those who defected to Obama in 2008.
What that means in closely contested House and Senate races in states like North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, later this year, will be interesting to see.
Brauer says the decreasing “God vote” support will play out most prominently with fiscally conservative Democrats: “Most of the Blue Dog Democrats heavily rely on the faithful vote to keep their seats, especially if they are in predominantly Republican districts.”
Faith-filled voters who tend to be socially conservative could just as easy find a connection and comfort with a true Republican than with a socially conservative Democrat. If this trend continues, Blue Dog Democrats should beware the midterm elections.
Rozell would not be surprised if, by Election Day, support increases for Democrats among Jewish voters. “But it remains troubling for the party that it needs to spend a lot of effort now at rebuilding its support among such a reliable voting bloc,” he said.
Think of the dilemma this way: Democrats made a big push to reach out to Catholics and evangelicals, and they made some gains with both in 2006 and 2008.
Can the party realistically think of expanding its base among evangelicals and Catholics while trying to regain its traditional support among Jewish voters?