Friday, February 15, 2008

Evidence of Evangelical Shift is still Slim

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Evangelicals may be shifting away from the Republican Party, but a recent poll doesn’t offer compelling evidence to support that claim.

The poll is another example of the need to examine numbers critically and cautiously, instead of taking them at face value.

Because the media consortium’s national exit poll, conducted by Edison Media Research, did not ask Democratic primary goers if they were evangelical or born-again Christians, Faith in Public Life and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a “progressive” think tank, commissioned Zogby International to conduct its own exit poll in two Super Tuesday states: Missouri and Tennessee.

Both of these groups, along with Sojourners founder Rev. Jim Wallis, have spent months trying to build a rhetorical storyline of evangelicals running away from the “Religious Right” and the Republican Party. Given that, it’s no surprise that their poll backed up their claims.

At best, the data are inconclusive. But many are likely to conclude that the poll and memo are examples of a group trying to be too cute with numbers and language in an effort to promote their cause and lead journalists to a particular conclusion.

According to the Faith in Public Life memo, the February 5-6 survey “demonstrates the diversity of evangelical voters and the need for more thorough polling and careful analysis.” That’s a safe conclusion, of course, but the report’s other conclusions are not nearly so persuasive.

According to the poll, 34% of white evangelical voters in Missouri and 32% of white evangelical voters in Tennessee participated in the Democratic primary. The memo treats these numbers as remarkable and a dramatic development, but a considerable minority of evangelicals have been voting Democratic for several decades. A February 11 Reuters headline captured this political reality well, “Polls show some U.S. evangelicals vote Democrat.”

But instead of just putting the numbers out on their own, Faith in Public Life offered a flawed and misleading suggestive comparison to the 2004 general election. According to the memo, “One in three white evangelical voters in Missouri and Tennessee participated in Democratic primaries. Comparatively, only one in four white evangelical voters in Missouri and Tennessee supported John Kerry in the 2004 general election.”

This is one of those “apples to oranges” comparisons that simply ought never be done. You can’t compare general election voter behavior from four years ago with primary election voter participation.

Primary and general electorates are very different in both their size and makeup. And since both Missouri and Tennessee have no party registration and open primaries, any registered voter can choose which primary to participate in. That means it is virtually impossible to draw conclusions about the makeup of either party’s electorate since there are almost certainly some crossover voters from the other party, as well as Independents, in the mix.

The folks at Faith in Public Life must have known that the media couldn’t resist the story. “White Evangelical Vote for Democrats is Up,” according to an online article for U.S. News and World Report. A Christian Post story trumpeted the same analysis. While acknowledging the lack of relevant historical data, Faith in Public Life still put forth the flawed 2004 comparison that would lead reporters to their desired conclusion.

“The media is operating with an outdated script,” according to Wallis, a widely known politically liberal evangelical, “And the experience I’m having on the road confirms the data.”

Wallis, who has been a leader in promoting the political irrelevance of religious conservatives, is simultaneously promoting his new book that hinges on the notion that evangelicals are becoming less Republican. So it’s not surprising that the data and anecdotal conversations from his book tour(s) match up with his vision for the evangelical community.

The net increase of Democratic evangelical voters is only one supposed take-away from the poll. Faith in Public Life is also trying to promote white evangelicals as a critical part of the Democratic coalition.

But by polling two Bible Belt states, it’s difficult to extrapolate out the percentages of white evangelical voters to the national Democratic Party. In 2004, white evangelicals made up 51% of the entire electorate in Tennessee and 35% in Missouri, so it’s not unreasonable to think that the percentage of Democratic evangelicals will be lower in coastal and New England states.

There is also a significant problem with the margin of error and small size of the subsamples in the poll, but that didn’t stop Faith in Public Life and Zogby from trumpeting the results.

The poll showed Sen. Hillary Clinton easily defeated Sen. Barack Obama among white evangelical voters. But the sub-samples were so small (n=76 in Missouri and n=116 in Tennessee) that any conclusions are not statistically reliable. Unfortunately, a February 13 item (“Silver Lining for Clinton: Evangelical Support”) chose to publish it anyway, as did an online article at Christianity Today.

There are even some statistical problems within the white evangelical subsamples on the survey’s question about the “broadening agenda.” Because of the high margin of error in the Tennessee and Missouri GOP primaries, it’s unclear whether a majority of white evangelicals support a broader agenda at all. In general, the question’s wording virtually guaranteed the desired result since a small number of people are against “ending poverty.”

It’s likely that some evangelicals are moving away from the Republican Party at the moment, since almost every other voter group in the country is doing the same thing. But the numbers in the Zogby poll don’t prove it.

It’s wise to be skeptical of any survey conducted for an interest group with an agenda. It’s especially wise when methodological questions abound, and when the analysis accompanying the data seems forced.

This story also appeared on RealClearPolitics on February 17, 2008.