Election Analysis through the Looking Glass: Political Ideology Is More Important Than Religion When It Comes to Voting

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DEMOCRATS POISED TO TAKE control of Congress in January heard claims by religious progressives that the 2006 elections had been strongly influenced by religious organizing on the center-left. They would be wise to examine such claims carefully. Writing a post-election analysis is like having a magic looking glass: It allows you to see whatever conclusion you desire in the results.

These progressive religionists who gaze into the looking glass and see moral shifts are using an "exit poll" by John Zogby as proof that many evangelicals, Catholics and frequent churchgoers have replaced abortion and gay rights with Iraq, the economy and economic justice on their moral agendas. Ah, if it were really that simple.

This interpretation is an excellent example of the danger of election analysts' claims to know what impact "morals" have on the electorate. Morals vary depending on the person. You do not really know what someone considers a moral issue and what is simply a priority for government to address unless you ask. Zogby's poll never asked. He gave voters a list of issues he had conveniently labeled as moral, such as the war in Iraq, abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage, and asked people to choose the most important from among them. How can we--or Zogby--know that these are the most important moral issues to voters?

The Zogby "exit poll," conducted for the group Faith in Public Life, was in fact not an exit poll. Instead, it was a post-election survey of self-selected Zogby Interactive panel members. The voters were not randomly selected, and none of the participants were interviewed as they left the polls. The poll is representative only of those who have Internet access, signed up for Zogby's panel, claim to have voted and chose to take the survey.

Instead of using bad data to justify a hoped-for outcome, progressive religious people should take a clear-eyed look at the election and keep a few points in mind.

First, not everything is a moral issue. Calling an issue moral makes it a loaded term, carrying different meanings, depending on the audience. For some, moral issues mean abortion and gay rights; others think of jobs and affordable health care. For some, being moral is simply being a fundamentalist Christian; for others, it is following the Constitution. Beware of claims about what issues are moral.

Second, pay close attention to the Catholic vote. In every presidential election in the last 30 years, the candidate that won the Catholic vote also won the popular vote. …