Republicans Can’t Win Without Solving Their ‘Secular Problem’

Bill Scher

Last week I wrote that the GOP is on track to lose the Latino vote yet again. On the day Republicans face up to this problem, they at least know what they have to do: suck it up on immigration reform.

But Republicans have a bigger demographic challenge looming over them, one of which they are less cognizant, of which they will have harder time accepting, and of which the solutions are less obvious: the Republican “secular problem.”

In the Bush Era, pundits were fond of lording over Democrats that they suffered from a “God problem.” But ever since Democrats won the 2006 midterms, I have been writing that the opposite was true.

The 2006 exit poll data showed that Democrats crushed Republican among voters who went to church “a few times a year” (60-38 percent) and “never” (67-30 percent), while the Republican margin among those who attended church “weekly” was slashed from 16 points in the previous midterm to seven.

In 2008, the Republican secular problem was magnified. As I wrote days after the election:

…In 2008, Sen. John McCain received 39 percent support of voters who seldom attend religious services, and 30 percent from those who never go. Both numbers represent a 6-point drop from what Bush received in 2004…

…Obama received 43 percent of the vote from voters who attend religious services weekly or more than weekly. For Kerry, those numbers were 41 percent and 35 percent…

In short, McCain did worse with a growing population of secular voters, while Obama did better among religious voters.

I revisited the secular problem for Politico last Friday, in a piece exploring the moment when Ronald Reagan married the Republican Party to the Christian Right. I summed up the 2012 data as follows:

…an interesting thing happened in 2012. Obama’s support among white evangelicals, and among voters who attend religious services at least weekly, had returned to 2004 levels. And he won anyway.

While Obama replicated Kerry’s weak performance among 42 percent of voters who said they were regular worshippers, Mitt Romney receded slightly from Bush’s 2004 already weak levels among the 57 percent who never went to services or who went irregularly.

The secular vote was exactly as large as the weekly churchgoing vote in 2012, both at 42 percent. But Obama beat Romney by 11 points among the religious swing vote: those who say they go to church “a few times a month.” Since people tend to exaggerate how often they worship, this group may overlap more with secular than religious voters, though it did vote for Bush in 2004 by a tiny margin.

Should Republicans just try to win back these religious swing voters? As I said in Politico, “…that would be plugging a finger in the dike. The trend in church attendance is down, so in all likelihood the secular vote is going to grow over time.”

Republicans could also take heart in their 2014 House election performance: they actually won the vote of those who attend service “a few times a year” by three points. But with so many uncontested races, and little effort from Democrats to try to take back the House, Democratic turnout was hardly maximized.

More ominously for Republicans: the 2014 secular vote (44 percent) was actually larger that the weekly worshiper vote (40 percent). That four-point secular tilt was closer to the five-point spread found in 2008, when Obama won with his most comfortable margin.

Furthermore, the warmup to the 2014 midterm election did not feature a cavalcade of Republican presidential candidates trying to pander to social conservatives in hopes of winning the early primary contests. That gives Democrats opportunities to stoke the embers of their secular base, and remind folks that – unlike in a midterm election – the Supreme Court is on the line.

If in 2016, Republicans again fail to cut into the secular vote in a presidential year, and rack up a 1-6 record in presidential popular votes going back to 1992, the need to win over the secular vote will become stark. But any moves to rectify the problem tear at the social conservative pillar of the current base. I laid out the problem in Politico:

Solving the Republican secular problem will be a far more painful process than solving the Latino problem. A single issue complicates the Republican Latino outreach effort: immigration. And it’s an issue where the Latino interest dovetails with the interest of Republican large donors. No sacrifice is required of core conservative principles regarding low taxes or deregulations. Conservative Republicans have already voted for immigration reform and survived their subsequent election.

But anything that would impress a secular voter – giving up 20-week abortion bans, renouncing “religious freedom” laws that would permit discrimination, demanding equal rights for the transgendered – would be anathema to the social conservatives who make up a considerable portion of the Republican base. Republicans may be forced to make a real, shall we say, Solomonic decision.

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