If you don’t believe in a loving God you’re vastly more likely to crave a loving government – a powerful yearning that helps explain the persistent appeal of the Democratic Party and political survival of Barack Obama.
Exit polls from 2012 strongly suggest that voters who seek divine compassion and attend religious services preferred Mitt Romney, while those more explicitly concerned with the compassion of politicians provided the president with his margin of victory. Rather than deriding voters who focus on the feelings of their leaders, conservatives must connect with them if they expect to turn the tide in future contests.
One of the most revealing exit poll questions offered voters four choices as to the “Most Important Candidate Quality.” Surprisingly, three-fourths of the electorate chose qualities in which they gave Romney a hefty advantage, agreeing that he “shared my values,” or had “a strong vision for the future,” or displayed characteristics of a “strong leader” more than President Obama. In fact, those who looked above all for a “strong leader” picked Romney by a landslide margin of 61 to 38%.
How, then, did Barack Obama win the election? Because 21% of the electorate identified their top priority as choosing a president who “cares about people like me,” and they favored the president by a margin of more than four-to-one, (81 to 18%).
Frustrated conservatives see these decisive numbers and argue that it’s irrational to make an electoral judgment based on how a politician feels rather than how he is likely to perform. The fact that a president cares about you, won’t impact his record in office as significantly as qualities of “strong leadership” or “strong vision for the future.” An office-holder’s caring only matters if the leader possesses the political skill and policy vision to act upon that concern.
While that proposition may make logical sense, on an emotional basis it’s also easy to understand why voters who feel vulnerable, lonely and disconnected would want a president who could function as a compassionate father figure. Another exit poll category gives an important indication of who such voters might be. Americans remain a deeply religious people, with 42% percent of those who participated in the last election attending church at least once a week. Romney won a landslide (59 to 39%) among these weekly churchgoers and similarly prevailed among the 82% who attended services at least a few times a year (51 to 47%). Only a minority of voters indicated they “never” go to church or synagogue, but that 17% of the electorate chose the president by nearly two-to-one, 62 to 34%. On election night, the president may have thanked God for his victory but he also should have thanked the godless, without whose lopsided support he would have lost.
It’s not surprising that those who lack the support of a religious community, and don’t count on protection or sustenance from an all-powerful God, might feel a stronger need for a caring president and a powerful, protective government. By the same token, the 40% of voters who are unmarried and can’t rely on a supportive spouse proved far more interested in a supportive government and gave Obama a two-to-one edge, even while the married majority strongly preferred Romney.
The challenge for Republicans involves the inexorable demographic growth of the Democratic “coalition of the disconnected” – including the unchurched and the unmarried – who want an activist government that will care for them. The only plausible appeal from conservatives would be to emphasize that growing bureaucracy, more federal spending and higher taxes are misguided and even damaging means for expressing compassion. The first President Bush made that point effectively in the campaign of 1988 with his emphasis on “a thousand points of light” and private sector charitable initiatives.
To some extent, he picked up themes pioneered by the late Congressman and cabinet secretary Jack Kemp who proudly described himself as “a bleeding heart conservative” and used to remind his fellow right-wingers: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That advice should still steer Republicans in new efforts to persuade even an increasingly irreligious electorate that an all-powerful government makes a miserable replacement for an all-powerful God.