Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Campaign Outreach to Religious Voters

Kimberly H. Conger


September 28, 2012

By Kimberly H. Conger

We’re at an unusual place in the presidential election campaign.  Less than two months from Election Day, there seem to be very few undecided voters remaining.  The overwhelming amount of presidential advertising is geared toward convincing ever more miniscule portions of the voting population.  Both campaigns are pouring volunteers and money into swing states to make sure supporters show up at the polls.  Here in Colorado, presidential political advertising is the constant background noise right now.  The Romney campaign is spending millions of dollars on ad buys and personal mobilization in Colorado Springs.  The choice by the Republicans to concentrate on the reddest portion of a red part of the state may seem a bit strange.  Their goal is to boost turnout, particularly among evangelicals in this conservative area.  This reality gives us some insight into the role of religious outreach in contemporary campaigns. 

Religious outreach is not a new phenomenon, but the rise of identity politics over the past generation has transformed specific religious groups into populations to be targeted and mobilized.  This has been particularly true for Republicans who have concentrated almost exclusively on white evangelicals.  Such efforts are one cause of the “God Gap,” the fact that religious people are far more likely to be Republicans than Democrats.  This has been one of the most enduring features of the voting patterns, and religious outreach, of the past decade.

There is a story about John Kerry walking through an airport soon after the 2004 election when he was stopped by a supporter to shake hands.  The man, calling himself and evangelical said, "I voted for you, and so did a lot of evangelicals. But you could have gotten more of us if you'd tried."   

Democrats in 2008 focused heavily on “people of faith,” hiring religious outreach liaisons early in the campaign and generating broad engagement by political organizations and leaders on the religious left.  For many on both sides of the aisle, the 2008 election seemed to be the time when religious conviction would come into its own as a political perspective in both parties.  The financial crisis in September 2008 dashed these hopes. 

The 2012 election is taking place in a much different political climate.  Few commentators have focused on the religious dimension in the 2012 election, save for the impact that Romney’s Mormonism has on the race.  However, both campaigns have religious outreach efforts underway, most of which seem to be focused on turnout.  Neither campaign seems to want to expend the energy to attract new religious voters. 

Republicans continue to focus on evangelicals in their outreach, though the addition of Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to the ticket has shifted some of the attention to conservative Catholics.  Mark DeMoss, an evangelical public relations professional, is a senior advisor to the Romney campaign.  Also enlisted for the Republican evangelical turnout effort is a resurrected Ralph Reed, who adds his skill in micro-targeting to identify and energize the most conservative of evangelical voters.  The Romney campaign is most concerned with demonstrating that his values mirror evangelical voters’, using this message—combined with conservative economics—to bring evangelicals to the polls. 

On the Democratic side, economic issues seem to have overwhelmed faith outreach.  While President Obama’s campaign appointed a faith outreach director in May of this year, many have been concerned that the 23-year-old former executive assistant in the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives, Michael Wear, did not have enough experience to be effective in the job.  Others worried that the appointment signaled a lack of interest in reaching out to religious voters.  The campaign launched specific faith outreach efforts in mid-September after some within the party expressed fear that the President’s stance on same-sex marriage would alienate socially conservative African-American Protestants.  Most of all, the Obama campaign wants to re-energize religiously motivated supporters who supported the campaign in 2008 by demonstrating that the President is still concerned with social justice issues. 

So where does this leave us?  Why should we care about religious outreach, particularly when we can see that it is about preaching to the converted as opposed to bridging the partisan gap?  Foremost, we need to recognize that for many in the political world, faith has an instrumental value.  Our faith is useful because it allows us to be categorized and mobilized.   

On one hand, we can’t blame the campaigns for doing what works, pushing our buttons to make us turn out to vote.  Whether we realize it or not, Christians are as willing to respond to these provocations as any other group.  On the other hand, we can choose to think critically about the messages each campaign is sending.  And we can dig deeper beyond the messages designed just to invigorate (or anger) us enough to motivate our vote.   We must engage fully with the range of a campaign’s promises and test them against the call of the Gospel. 

The fundamental question is whether we will let our faith become just another data point on which we are mobilized or whether we can define for ourselves how our faith translates into our politics.  This is certainly not a new idea, illustrated by the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Citizenship, but it certainly bears remembering in the context of the incessant stream of partisan mobilization messages. 

—Kimberly H. Conger teaches Political Science at Colorado State University and is Vice-President of Christians in Political Science.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”