Believe it or not, there was a time when Democrats actually managed to be competitive among the religious right. In 1976, the last time this really happened for Democrats at the Presidential level, Jimmy Carter managed to win 46 percent of Protestants. Not even Bill Clinton managed to match these numbers in his two successful Presidential bids.
Democrats long accepted these voters were lost at the Presidential level. But, until the last decade or so down-ballot Democrats managed to convincingly win their votes. For example, in 2008 Obama won 24 percent of these voters. Yet, in North Carolina Kay Hagan managed to win 31 percent of these voters. Then Senator Mark Pryor was viewed so strongly he did not even face a reelection campaign against a Republican.
Recently, such strength for down-ballot Democrats has evaporated. Back when Obama was first elected, Democrats managed to win 45 percent of the Protestant vote and over 35 percent of the white Protestant vote. By 2016, not only did Clinton’s share of the voting bloc drop to an abysmal 16 percent but House Democrats garnered an even worse 15 percent.
In places like the West and the Northeast, weakness among evangelicals is not a problem. New Hampshire has the lowest percentage of self-identified evangelicals in the nation and the Midwest is chalk full of culturally conservative whites but not evangelicals.
But, the party’s weakness among evangelicals has had significant repercussions regionally and nationally. In the South, white, culturally conservative Democrats have been officially wiped out at the federal level. Not a single Democrat holds a federal, statewide (US Senate seat) in the Deep South. More so, outside of Florida and Texas not a single Democrat in Congress represents a majority-white Southern district.
Last year, this problem compounded the Democrats struggles to retake the House. More importantly, it helped eliminate a growing Democratic advantage in urban/suburban areas Southern states like Georgia and North Carolina. For example, Hillary Clinton dominated the Research Triangle in North Carolina and made major gains in suburban Atlanta. But those gains were drowned out by Trump’s lopsided margins in evangelical dominated rural areas.
This year and next, Democrats are optimistic they can steal some suburban House seats in special elections and retake the House. But, to do that, Democrats will have to confront the very real problem their social progressive agenda has alienated them to the very suburban, GOP leaning, educated voters they need.
Democrats had the benefit of running against a non-typical Republican at the presidential level last year. Several strongly GOP districts like TX-7, TX-32 and GA-6 flipped strongly towards Hillary Clinton. Trump’s best districts were unsurprisingly in Northern and Midwestern seats.
These districts are open to immigration and diversity but they also are repelled by Democrats socially progressive mantra. That was partly covered up during the Presidential election but down-ballot their resistance to Democrats shows.
They certainly have their reasons. The Obama administration has turned the party hard left on religious issues. For example, the ACA mandated that all institutions, private or not, religious or not, had to cover contraception, even if the institution objected. It took two narrow rulings by the Supreme Court in Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby.
At the state and local level social progressivism has trampled on the rights of religious individuals who run businesses in Washington State, Oregon and New Mexico. In their quest for equality for socially marginalized groups, Democrats have created a backlash even among only mildly religious voters.
But, with Democrats so deeply entrenched in the minority they need Southern Senate seats and districts to regain their Congressional majorities. The problem is if suburban, educated GOP voters are recoiling against this message imagine how strongly evangelicals are reacting.
Actually, we do not have to imagine. The exit polls tell the story. So do the Congressional numbers in the South. Complaints about racism, sexism (the list goes on), can not cover up the fact the party has a religious problem in the region.
If it was just the South, Democrats might be able to rest a little easier. But, as indicated before, Trump’s strongest gains actually came among moderately religious, blue-collar workers in the Midwest. Forget educated voters in the South for a second and you see just how badly the Democrats social equality has impacted their electoral fortunes.
Trump carried every Congressional district in Iowa. He carried five of Minnesota’s eight districts and five of Wisconsin’s eight districts. He ran better in rural NY, Maine and New Hampshire than any GOP Presidential nominee since Reagan.
Admittedly, these voters are reacting to more than Democrats social agenda. They feel left behind by their party. They feel they are blamed for everything from global warming to black on black crime to minority unemployment. They perceive Democrats and their supporters are more comfortable bullying them into agreeing than actually convincing them. Indeed, the studies since the election have only validated this theory (Clinton lost because of sexism, racism, white superiority, etc.).
They’re right. Democrats need to do some serious soul searching if they ever want these voters back. The first test will be the DNC Chair race. The top contenders are offering platitudes about the need for unity and reaching out to voters but in reality the current political environment beckons them to double down on their base. That will not help vulnerable Democratic incumbents in red districts and states next year.
Until Democrats confront their social agenda they are likely to find Republicans and Trump will always have a fertile base of support to draw from. Demographics cannot help a party overcome a weak message. Sorry.