Closing the God Gap

How a pair of Democratic strategists are helping candidates talk about their faith

Given how well Democrats did in the midterm elections, it’s surprising how little they narrowed what is melodically called the “God gap”—the overwhelming Republican advantage among religious voters. To be sure, they did better with white evangelicals than they had in recent years, but still not as well as Bill Clinton did a decade ago. Just 28 percent voted for House Democrats this election cycle, up only 3 points from 2004. “Given all the polling that was done about how evangelicals were frustrated with the Republican Party, I thought [the Democrats would] do better,” says John Green, a fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Nationwide, “values voters” remain skeptical of the Democratic Party.

But the picture changes when you zoom in on specific races. In some, Democrats made astonishing gains—of the sort that gets Green talking about “potential historic shifts” in voting blocs that “could dramatically change the relationship between faith and politics in this country,” if replicated widely. In the Ohio governor’s race, the Democrat Ted Strickland won as many white evangelical votes as the losing Republican, Ken Blackwell—calling to mind the days before the rise of the Christian right in the ’60s. In Pennsylvania’s Senate race, Bob Casey, another Democrat, won 59 percent of Catholics, creating a bloc of Catholic Democrats hark­ening back to the 1950s.

Casey is “pro-life,” and Strickland a minister, but similar shifts occurred in other races featuring more-traditional Democratic candidates. Michigan’s Jennifer Gran­holm, for instance, a “pro-choice” and relatively liberal governor, won 35 percent of the white evangelical vote, a percentage significantly higher than the House Democratic average. All in all, about a half-dozen races impressed Green as scrambling many of our culture-war assumptions. In each of these races, you can argue about the strength of the opponent and other local dynamics, but all of them turn out to have one thing in common: the winning candidate worked extensively with a small political consulting outfit called Common Good Strategies.

Mara Vanderslice, a thirty-one-year-old born-again Christian, founded Common Good in 2005 and later brought on Eric Sapp, thirty, as a partner. Both belong to the small but growing club of evangelicals who are also Democrats. Vanderslice had worked on a couple of Democratic presidential campaigns, and she had found that the reactions of many campaign staffers around her ranged from “ambivalent to hostile” when she suggested reaching out to religious voters or constituents. But she and Sapp suspected that while the machinery resisted, the candidates themselves might be amenable. This year, Common Good worked closely with seven candidates, testing a new strategy for Democrats trying to court religious voters. All of these candidates won in November.

In each race, Vanderslice and Sapp began by helping candidates build the infrastructure necessary to reach religious voters, often from scratch. “In many cases our party had completely written them off,” says Sapp. In none of the states in which they worked did the Democratic Party have a complete list of pastors, for example, so Common Good staffers created those lists. In Michigan, they met with about 500 conservative and moderate members of the clergy; in many of the meetings, particularly with evangelical ministers, they would hear something like “Where have you all been?” According to Sapp, “At a fundamental level they just want candidates to give God his due, more than they care about specific issues.”

Common Good helped recruit pastors to write op-eds in response to criticisms and arranged for campaigns to buy mailing lists of religious-minded voters. Vanderslice and Sapp encouraged candidates to buy ads on Christian radio, a medium considered more intimate than television. Strickland did a large radio buy in July—early enough to look like more than an afterthought. For ten years he’d had a quote from Micah on his office wall: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” With uplift-y music in the background, he talked in his ad about how that quote had guided his career and would guide him as governor.

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Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic contributing editor, is working on a book about young evangelicals.

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