Shaun Casey and Michael McCurry on What Every Democratic Presidential Candidate Needs to Know About Religious Voters

Official White House portraits of former Presidents Barack Obama and John Kennedy. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(Shaun Casey teaches at Georgetown University and is a former special representative for religion and global affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Michael McCurry teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary and was White House press secretary in the Clinton White House. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.)

Almost 60 years ago, on the evening after his midday announcement that he was running for president, Sen. John Kennedy was depressed. According to his friend and biographer Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy was worried that, in the face of stiff Protestant anti-Catholic bigotry, he might have lost his bid for the White House on the day he was baptized as an infant in the Catholic Church.

A half-century later, Sen. Barack Obama faced a double-barreled crisis about his religious background. Many right-wingers, including Donald Trump, were promoting the lie that Obama was Muslim, even as an increasingly shrill chorus was deriding the future president’s relationship to his former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, a legendary African-American clergyman known for his fiery, controversial preaching.

Both candidates acted aggressively to address their very different conundrums. Kennedy turned the tide of his race with a dramatic speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, mollifying Protestant clergy. Obama, too, made a dramatic speech detailing his differences with Wright and distancing himself from the preacher. Behind the scenes, both candidates hired religious outreach teams that helped blunt the efforts of various organized entities bent on weaponizing religion against them.

The next president of the United States may well be the woman or man among the current Democratic cavalcade who figures out the best strategy for addressing the complexities of religion today. With the exceptions of Kennedy and Obama, most Democratic presidential candidates over the last 60 years proceeded as if religion didn’t matter. We think that would be a big mistake in 2020.

We find it interesting that several Democratic candidates have already signaled, through personal narratives and policy prescriptions, that they have real assets with religious constituencies. The question remains if these early signals will be matched with coherent strategies, or remain merely tantalizing ad hoc episodes.

We believe Democratic outreach to religiously motivated voters will be especially crucial at two points in the 2020 election cycle: early in the primaries and at the end of the general election season, especially in swing states in a tight Electoral College race.

In 2016, more than 170,000 Iowans turned out for the Democratic caucus and there is every reason to believe 2020’s highly motivated Democratic base will yield an even higher turnout come February. With as many as 20 candidates roaming the state looking for support, a few hundred votes might separate the winner from second place. Few will care about the photo finish the day after the caucus; what will matter is who won. A Democrat with a sophisticated religious outreach strategy might find enough new voters to secure the winning margin.

In the last general election, Hillary Clinton lost to Trump in the Electoral College by a handful of states by close popular votes. Had she flipped around 40,000 votes, properly distributed across Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, she would have won the White House. These states harbor enough persuadable religiously motivated voters to have closed that narrow gap. By neglecting to develop a strategy to reach them with her case for rejecting the deeply flawed Trump candidacy, she lost.

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Source: Religion News Service