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.

Vanderslice and Sapp helped the candidates create a new language to use in talking about faith and values, aimed in part at neutralizing hot-button issues. On abortion, for instance, they banned the word choice and pushed reduction, going one step further with Clinton’s idea that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare”: “We must work together across our differences to reduce the need and numbers of abortions by reducing unplanned pregnancies and helping women and families get the support they need when facing a crisis pregnancy,” read a brochure for Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senate candidate in Ohio. The idea was that a lot of voters who oppose abortion don’t actually want it to be criminalized; they just want the issue to be recognized as important.

The two consultants also advised candidates to attack Republican positions on moral grounds, from the left. Where anti-gay-marriage amendments came up, for example, they expanded the issue and talked about how many marriages were disintegrating because of financial stress, which they name as the No. 1 cause of divorce in America.

Each candidate had a distinctive style, but a few themes recurred: following Christ’s example by serving others, promoting the common good, protecting the environment as God’s creation, alleviating poverty—endless references to the underserved and uninsured and out-of-work. “The central question should not be, Are you better off than you were four years ago?” said Casey in a September speech at Catholic University. “It should be, How can we—all of us, especially the weak and vulnerable—be better off in the years ahead?”

Read the speeches and it’s impossible to believe the conventional wisdom that these candidates are part of a new wave of “conservative” Democrats— populist, maybe, heirs to William Jennings Bryan or kin to the Sojourners, but definitely not conservative. All of them defy the notion that Democrats can win in competitive districts only by moving to the right.

When Sapp told me people cried during Strickland’s August 2005 speech on faith and values at the Columbus Metropolitan Club, I didn’t really believe him (who cries at a Metropolitan Club?). But if you read the speech, the crying seems plausible. It is full of a preacher’s barely contained rage, ripping into prevailing political hypocrisies without ever sounding political.

The next time some politician, in‑ cluding me, starts preaching to you a sermon on values, look us in the eye and ask us point-blank: Do your values include doing everything in your power to make sure that my hard work translates into a decent living for my family, that we have access to affordable health care, that I can offer my kids a solid, affordable education as far as their abilities will take them? …

It’s necessary to say this, because it seems, as far as the general culture and the press is concerned, one side of the political spectrum is deeply religious and deeply affected by moral values and the other side is not. I’m here to say that’s a lie that the truth won’t abide.

When asked about values, Democrats have tried this change-the-subject trick before, often with little effect. But spoken repeatedly, by candidates comfortable in the idiom, in media familiar to religious voters, the message must have come off as sincere. Add a serious outreach effort to pastors, and the Democrats’ new words carried surprising weight. Protest votes are one thing, but the sheer size of the shift in religious and evangelical votes in these seven races seems to show that when values voters are taken seriously, they will venture out willingly from the Republican fold.

For Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and secularists in the Democratic Party, or anyone else who just doesn’t want to hear a Christian sermon at a campaign rally, this development may be unsettling. At least Strickland is a pastor; Gran­holm is not, and it can unnerve you to hear a sitting governor tell her listeners that they “were born to make manifest the glory of God,” and that “Jesus is in all of our people.”

Sapp and Vanderslice, of course, welcome the development. They want religion in the public square, only they want it on their terms. Vanderslice grew up in Colorado, in the shadow of what she calls the “hateful rhetoric” of the religious right. She became a Christian in college, after a moving overseas trip working with missionaries. This year she cherry-picked only candidates with similarly “authentic” stories of faith to tell; by winning, she proved that her brand of idealism has practical applications.

Whether Common Good’s strategy can work for the whole party in 2008 remains to be seen. Winning political formulas spread quickly, but not every candidate can pull this one off. Still, Sapp argues, even small changes can make big differences. Not every Democrat has to be a pastor, he says; but put a few authentic Democratic voices on a national stage talking about right and wrong, and the party’s image can shift.

At the very least, such a change might take the sting out of the culture wars. If religious voters come up for grabs nationally, both parties will have to try to win them over the old-fashioned way: using substance and politics instead of just rhetoric.