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Missing the point

February 22, 2008, 2:11 pm | By katie

In a column published last Friday on the Rothenberg Political Report, political editor Nathan Gonzales took aim at a poll we commissioned in two Super Tuesday states to demonstrate the need for exit poll surveys to ask all voters, not just Republicans, if they are evangelical. Gonzales claims that the poll failed to demonstrate a shift among evangelicals away from the Republican Party. This misses the point of our poll. We, along with the Center for American Progress Action Fund, commissioned the poll to demonstrate the political diversity of evangelical Christians, which the exit polls have chosen to ignore. Our poll accomplished four important things:

- It showed that evangelicals are voting in significant numbers in both parties’ primaries.

- It showed that evangelicals are broadening their issue priorities beyond the narrow culture war agenda.

- It showed the need for more thorough polling of evangelicals.

- It provided a meaningful baseline for future comparisons.

This is not the first time the Rothenberg Report has attempted to write off evangelicals as a locked down ideologically monolithic voting bloc. In a March 2007 column, Stuart Rothenberg advised Democrats not to “waste a lot of time trying to attract evangelical voters to their party,” pointing out that Democratic evangelical gains were small in the 2006 elections despite evangelical outreach efforts. Unfortunately, Rothenberg ignored what John Green at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life took the time to notice: “Although Democrats as a whole made only moderate gains with most faith communities during the ’06 election, that picture changes when you focus in on specific races where Democrats made a concerted effort to reach out to the faith community. In these races, Democrats…made impressive gains among evangelicals.”

Last week, the Rothenberg Report took liberties in their analysis of the poll we commissioned in two Super Tuesday states to demonstrate the political diversity of evangelicals and the need for the presidential primary exit polls to ask all voters, not just Republicans, if they are evangelical.

The most blatant example of the Rothenberg Report’s unwillingness to fairly analyze the data was Nathan Gonzales’ dismissal of one of our central findings about the broadening evangelical agenda. We found that in both MO and TN, a majority of evangelicals (62 percent to 33 percent in MO; 56 percent to 35 percent in TN) from both parties want a broader evangelical agenda that goes beyond abortion and same-sex marriage. Gonzales dismissed these findings and others by accusing us of leading question-wording and by impugning the small sample size of the survey.

Gonzales charged that our “question’s wording virtually guaranteed the desired result since a small number of people are against ‘ending poverty.’” This misleading characterization selectively quotes our poll question (which is publicly available in the interest of transparency) and ignores the current debate within evangelicalism over the evangelical issue agenda.

Our poll did not just ask about poverty, it asked: “Recently, some evangelicals have embraced a broader issue agenda that goes beyond abortion and gay marriage to include ending poverty, protecting the environment, and tackling HIV/AIDS. But other evangelicals have argued for sticking to the more limited agenda of opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Which do you agree with most…”

Gonzales is certainly right that had we asked only about poverty, the question would have been little more than a push-poll question. But Gonzales has done enough analysis of evangelicals to know that environmental protection and HIV/AIDS, which he inexplicably omits from his quote, have been divisive issues in evangelical circles. (For example, Religious Right leaders have harshly criticized Rick Warren for embracing the issue of HIV/AIDS and attempted to oust Richard Cizik from his position at the National Association of Evangelicals for his work on climate change.)

And Gonzales ignored that the double-digit margins (29 points in MO and 21 points in TN) by which evangelicals support this broader agenda far exceed the margins of error, even with a modest sample size. Our results on this question were based on 293 (78 Democrats, 215 Republicans) evangelical respondents in MO and 399 (117 Democrats, 282 Republicans) evangelical respondents in TN. The margins of error for these subsets were 6 percent in MO and 5 percent in TN.

Another of Gonzales’s gripes was that we should not have made any comparison of 2004 general election data and our 2008 primary poll. We acknowledged in on our press teleconference that this comparison was not apples-to-apples and because it compares general election to primary data. Given that primary exit polls have not asked the questions necessary to construct a true benchmark, suggestive data is necessary to provide context, even if it is not ideal. Moving forward, our Tennessee and Missouri polls can provide a future basis for comparison. You might call it the first apple.

Gonzales also criticizes the Washington Post for publishing our finding that Sen. Hillary Clinton defeated Sen. Barack Obama among white evangelical voters, and makes a blanket declaration that “the sub-samples [of white evangelical Democrats] were so small (n=76 in Missouri and n=116 in Tennessee) that any conclusions are not statistically reliable.” Although the samples of white evangelicals were small (actually 78 in MO and 117 in TN), the poll did produce results that exceeded the necessarily wider margins of error. (The white evangelical Democratic sub-sample in MO had an 11 percent margin of error and this TN sub-sample had a 9 percent margin of error.) While the tight Clinton-Obama race in MO (54 percent to 37 percent among white evangelicals) was too close to draw statistically significant conclusions with this sample size, our finding of Clinton’s decisive win in TN among white evangelicals (78 percent to 12 percent) far exceeded the 9 percent margin of error. The Washington Post correctly reported these findings.

As an organization that believes no party can own any faith and that no group of people should be dismissed or ignored on the basis of religion, we are pleased to have sought out this instructive data that the exit polls have thus far refused to provide, and we stand by our work. The full wording of questions and topline results are publicly available from Faith in Public Life.

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UPDATED: Super-Stereotyping in Tuesday’s Exits

February 6, 2008, 11:40 am | By katie

Here we go again. Last night, the exit polls in every single state failed to ask Democratic primary voters if they were born-again or evangelical Christians. There’s lots of news analysis this morning about how evangelicals voted in the Republican primaries and none about Democrats — because no one has the data. This imbalance continues to reinforce the false and outdated presumption that evangelicals only vote for candidates from one party.

The National Election Pool’s only response to this (now widespread) complaint is that there is “limited real estate” on the questionnaires. Others have claimed that asking Democratic primary voters would not yield valuable or interesting data. Polling information to which we do have access casts doubt on this claim.

UPDATE: Melissa Rogers analyzes the misleading journalism that inevitably results from pigeonholing evangelical voters in exit polls.

In early January, Christianity Today found that readers preferred Obama (who came in second only to Huckabee) to Clinton by a margin of 10 percentage points in an online poll. When Relevant Magazine, the flagship publication for young evangelicals, asked readers who Jesus would vote for, they gave Obama, who bested all Republican and Democratic candidates in this poll, a 27-point edge over Clinton. Are young evangelicals in fact flocking to Obama? How does his vote count among evangelicals compare not only to Clinton’s, but to Huckabee’s, and the other Republican candidates’? It would be interesting to know, but we don’t. Because the exit polls did not collect the data.

The findings of a recent Barna study raise further intrigue. (Note that Barna measures born-again Christians differently than other pollsters. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again”, but rather if they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and believe that when they die they will go to Heaven.) Barna found that if the election were held today, and all of the remaining candidates from both parties were on the ballot, 20% of born-again Christian voters would vote for Clinton, 18% for Obama and 12% for Huckabee. No other candidate reached double figures, and 30% said they were still undecided.

Moreover, exit poll questions that have asked about the religiosity of Democrats have yielded valuable and interesting data so far. We have learned that Clinton has consistently done well among Catholics, while Obama has done well with those who attend religious services most frequently. This data helps us measure the effectiveness of each candidate’s message and outreach to different faith communities, but without knowing how the candidates are faring with evangelicals, any analysis will be incomplete.

One positive sign: Unlike in several previous primary states, on Super Tuesday the exit pollsters asked both Republican Democratic primary participants in every state their religious affiliation (Protestant/Catholic/Mormon/Jewish/Muslim/etc) and how frequently they attended religious services. That’s progress. We hope for more.

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In SC, exit polls fail again

January 28, 2008, 12:06 pm | By katie

Saturday’s SC exit polls failed to ask Democratic primary voters if they were born-again or evangelical Christians — even though Republicans were asked that question in South Carolina last week.

Republican SC primary voters were asked if they were Protestant, Catholic, LDS, Jewish, Muslim, etc., how often they attend religious services, if they would describe themselves as born-again of evangelical Christians, and how much it matters to them that a candidate shares their religious beliefs. Dem primary voters were asked only about frequency of religious service attendance. This is a pattern that has occurred to varying degrees of severity in every primary state so far.

Based on the limited SC exit poll data we do have, it is informative to learn that 31% of SC Republican primary voters, versus 25% of Democrats, attend religious services more than weekly — just a 6% gap. It is informative to learn that Obama won 64% of Democrats who attend services more than weekly, compared to Huckabee who won 52% of Republicans. Most surprisingly, vote totals and exit polls show that Democrats who attend worship services weekly or more than weekly actually outnumber Republicans who attend weekly or more often, by a count of 286,374 to 283,468.

It would have been informative to know what percentage of SC Democratic primary voters consider themselves born-again or evangelical Christian, as compared to 60% of SC Republican primary voters who consider themselves such. Unfortunately, we can’t make that comparison, because the exit poll pollsters did not collect that data or any other religious identification information about SC Democratic primary voters.

The only response we have received to the letter from prominent evangelical leaders, including David Neff, editor of Christianity Today and Paul Corts, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, to the polling directors of ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC and the AP (members of the National Election Pool consortium) asking for this problem to be corrected, was insufficient: “We have limited real estate on our questionnaires,” it read. “We choose the questions based on our internal editorial discussions. To protect the integrity of the process, we routinely do not talk publicly about what questions are on our surveys.”

Just as in earlier primary states, the SC exit polls once again disregarded the increasing ideological diversity of evangelicals and other religious groups, and failed to assess the effectiveness of now-bipartisan faith outreach strategies.

In a heavily religious state such as SC, this is more inexcusable than ever.

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Catholic, Evangelical, Mainline Leaders Weigh in to Protect Religion’s Role

January 16, 2008, 9:49 am | By katie

Yesterday, just hours after news sources reported Mike Huckabee’s comments that we need to “amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards” (referring to his support for constitutional amendments outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage), more than two dozen Catholic, Evangelical and Mainline Protestant leaders issued a statement asking candidate to respect religion’s proper role in public life.

The statement, Keeping Faith: Principles to Protect Religion on the Campaign Trail (PDF) , released by Faith in Public Life and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, expresses concern about divisive rhetoric and identifies three basic principles to protect religion in public life. (Reuters and Christian Post have already picked it up.)

We are troubled to see candidates pressed to pronounce the nature of their religious beliefs, asked if they believe every word of the Bible, forced to fend off warnings by a few religious authorities about reception of sacraments, compelled to confront derogatory and false allegations of radical Muslim childhood education, and faced with prejudicial analyses of their denominational doctrines.

Exclusionary religious rhetoric by candidates and constant scrutiny of the minutiae of their faiths undermine religion’s valuable role in public life.

Following Article VI of the U. S. Constitution and the First Amendment, we identify three basic principles.

* No person should be expected to leave their faith at the door when operating in the public square. But it is inappropriate to use religious or doctrinal differences to marginalize or disparage candidates, by either comparison or assertion. No religious test may be applied to candidates for public office – not by the law, not by candidates, not by campaigns.

*Candidates for public office should welcome the contributions that religion brings to society. But just as government may not endorse or favor a religious faith, candidates for public office are obliged, in their official capacity, to acknowledge that no faith can lay exclusive claim to the moral values that enrich our public life.

*Just as government policies must be in service to the nation and not to any religious faith, the same holds true for candidates’ positions on policies. While it is appropriate for candidates to connect their faith to their policy positions, their positions on policy must respect all citizens regardless of religious belief.

As the 2008 campaign charges forward, we call upon all candidates, regardless of whether or not or how often they choose to talk about religion, to protect it. We call upon all candidates to join us in affirming these principles.

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Observant Jews Effectively Barred from Nevada Caucuses

January 11, 2008, 11:46 am | By katie

We’ve been drawing attention this week to the fact that the media-sponsored exit polls in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary only asked Republicans if they are evangelicals — effectively rendering Democratic evangelical primary voters invisible. But at least they got to cast their votes.

Religious Jews in Nevada will have to choose between voting and practicing their faith on January 19, the day of the Republican and Democratic Nevada caucuses. January 19 is a Saturday and the caucuses will be held at 9 and 11:30 am — during morning religious services for observant Jews.

As my friend Melissa Boteach, Poverty Campaign Coordinator at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs writes:

January 19th is one of the most important contests in the Democratic and Republican quests for their parties’ nomination for the presidency. It is also Shabbat.

This year, the Nevada Democratic and Republican parties have decided to hold their primary caucuses on a Saturday, with citizens required to report by 11:30 and 9:00 AM respectively, right during morning religious services. When I called the political parties in Nevada to inquire as to whether or not there were measures being taken to help accommodate those observant Jews who wished to participate in the caucuses, I received mixed results. A young Jewish woman at the Nevada Democratic Party told me that they had tried to put caucus-sites near religious neighborhoods and synagogues so that people could walk; precinct captains would be educated about the need to write down information on behalf of observant Jews instead of asking them to sign-in and write themselves. A gentleman at the Nevada Republican Party told me that the party was not even aware of the problem, but promised to make an effort to educate precinct captains on the issue. Neither had an adequate answer as to why the caucuses had to take place on a Shabbat morning.

Nevada has one of the fastest growing Jewish populations in the country, and its 65,000-80,000 Jewish community members are expected to have a disproportionate impact on the results.

On January 19th, Nevada’s observant Jews will be asked to make a false choice between practicing their Judaism and participating in a defining American moment. To all Americans, not just American Jews, this should be seen as a disappointment.

This is unacceptable in American democracy. Has anyone seen media coverage of this beyond the Jewish press? Where’s the outrage?

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