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Politics Religious Voters Aren't Flocking to Biden, Poll Critics Argue

13:25  18 september  2020
13:25  18 september  2020 Source:   realclearpolitics.com

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The statement wasn’t out of character for the vice president, a devout evangelical Christian who regularly cites Scripture and isn’t shy about discussing his faith and how it shapes his views on public policy. Yet, it was where and when Pence chose to make the remarks  – on Twitter in the final 50-day stretch of a nasty presidential campaign — that made them stand out amid the social media platform’s stream of overblown headlines and usual petty tete-a-tetes.

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Later in the day, President Trump tweeted out a doctored video of Joe Biden that replaced the popular Spanish-language pop song “Despacito” with an anti-police anthem by hip-hop group N.W.A. Twitter immediately flagged the video as “manipulated media.”

Both sides are going low with the election less than seven weeks away, and the round-the-clock mudslinging can be distilled down to this: Trump hammering home his law-and-order theme while attacking Biden’s mental/physical ability to run the country, and Biden accusing Trump of killing nearly 200,000 Americans by mangling the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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With a nation deeply divided and on edge after months of racial unrest over police killings of African Americans, the nastiness is also fueling a new debate: How are religious voters responding to the campaign vitriol?

A flurry of headlines over the last week have focused on a poll of Catholic and evangelical voters that purports to show Trump losing significant support among these groups, which the stories contend jeopardizes his path to reelection. The survey was conducted by the little-known liberal group Vote Common Good, which recently announced a partnership with the vehemently Never-Trump Lincoln Project and is holding a series of pro-Biden rallies in battleground states during the final sprint to Election Day. Most of the news reports haven’t mentioned the Lincoln Project connection or its mission to elect Biden.

In the last month alone, the group has held 19 socially distanced rallies or virtual events in five states plus the District of Columbia — all designed to “stop the election of Donald Trump,” according to its website. Most of its funding, more than $500,000 this cycle, comes from a single donor, New York real estate developer and philanthropist Eric Hadar, a major contributor to education, substance abuse, Jewish and Democratic causes.

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Despite Vote Common Good’s singular goal of electing Biden, few journalists are probing the poll’s findings. Trump’s support is crumbling among his Christian base, the reporting argues, because religious voters have rejected his combative personality along with his handling of the coronavirus and heightened focus on a law-and-order response to the nation’s racial turmoil rather than offering a unifying message to heal the nation.

For at least some Christian voters, the rationale goes, Biden’s likability and willingness to discuss his faith are more important than his about-face on federal funding of abortions and his decision to pick a vehemently pro-choice running mate, among other issues.

The Vote Common Good online survey of 1,430 registered voters found an 11-percentage-point swing toward Biden among evangelicals and Catholics who backed Trump in 2016 across five major  battleground states: Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Conducted by a team of behavior specialist pollsters at Duke University, the University of Maryland, the University of North Carolina and the University of Southern California, the survey found that even a 5% reduction in support for Trump across the five states would shift four of them to Biden, with the exception of North Carolina.

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“We were surprised at the level of shift to that 11% increase in voters moving away from Trump versus those who voted in 2016,” said Doug Pagitt, a Minnesota pastor serving as the executive director of Vote Common Good, told RealClearPolitics this week. “Ultimately we were asking voters about virtues and vices, and I really believe that when [respondents] start thinking about vices … that might land them in a different place than if they’re just being asked to rate candidates.”

Pagitt said he helped form the group when he realized after 2016 that Hillary Clinton had performed so poorly with evangelical voters. He believes religious voters gave Trump a chance against Clinton, but argues that the president’s “cruelty and corruption” has them searching for an alternative and they view Biden as far kinder and empathetic.

Religious leaders backing Trump are now punching back, arguing that the survey is deeply flawed and its findings shouldn’t be taken seriously. Brian Burch of CatholicVote.org has labeled the Vote Common Good poll an obvious effort “to lure away a fraction of religious believers at the margins through propaganda and disinformation.”

“I wholly disagree with the insinuation that religious voters are abandoning the president, based on our internal data and a number of other polls that demonstrate quite the opposite,” Burch told RCP. “Given the pro-religious liberty and pro-life policies this president has put into place, together with his pledges to protect our values, our institutions and our schools … religious believers clearly have only one choice in this election, and that’s Donald Trump.”

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Penny Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative evangelical Christian group, also dismissed assertions that Trump’s aggressive personality and mean-spirited tweets will cost him votes among evangelicals.

“Donald Trump may not always tweet things the way we’d like to see them discussed, but we appreciate the fact that his policies are rock solid and 100% in line with what he promised,” she said. Nance, who serves on the advisory board for Women for Trump, also argued that naming Pence as a running mate was one of his best decisions when it comes to locking in evangelical and Catholic voters.

Biden has earned high marks from Pagitt and other religious leaders for talking openly about how his faith has helped him get through so many life tragedies, including the 2015 loss of his oldest son, Beau. During the Democratic convention last month, Biden spoke about his Catholicism in deeply personal terms and framed the presidential election as a battle for the soul of the nation.

But talk is one thing, and taking policy stands based on those beliefs is quite another, critics argue. Burch believes Catholics are far more moved by “what his policies would do to the culture and their freedom to live out their own beliefs.”

To underscore this point, John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic Democrat, didn’t fare as well with Catholic voters in 2004 as Al Gore, a Protestant, had four years earlier. Kerry lost the Catholic vote to (pro-life) George W. Bush by five percentage points in a race Bush won nationally by a 51%-48% margin.

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Four years ago, the Catholic vote appears to have been split fairly evenly, although the exact tally remains elusive. Exit polls the night of the election had Donald Trump taking 50% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 46%. A more comprehensive analysis by the nonpartisan American National Election Study concluded that a plurality of Catholics voted for Clinton (48% to 45%). The ANES study found that the exit polls understated the Democrats’ support from Hispanic Catholics, who broke down 74%-19% for Clinton over Trump. In its own examination of 2016 election returns, CatholicVote calculates that Trump bested Clinton among Catholics by a margin of 52%-45%. In a survey done at the outset of the 2020 campaign by RealClear Opinion Research, Catholic voters were asked again how they voted in 2016: The numbers were split almost evenly between Trump and Clinton.

What does that portend for 2020? The RealClear Opinion Research surveys have shown that abortion has declined as a wedge issue for Catholics, which should help Biden. Yet other issues are taking its place, including religious freedom, threats to Catholic schools, and vandalism of religious symbols and statutes of saints – topics stressed by Trump.

This week Burch’s group launched a $9.7 million campaign targeting Catholic voters in key swing states; the initiative will include a $350,000 digital ad buy in Pennsylvania and Michigan hitting Biden for “sacrificing his Catholic values to kneel before the leftist mob.”

The ads highlight Biden’s reversal last year of his career-long support for the Hyde Amendment, which bars spending federal funds on abortion. It also features Sister Dede Byrne, a retired Army officer and a surgeon who helps run a Catholic charity and spoke at the GOP convention, calling Biden-Harris the “most anti-life presidential ticket ever.” The group will also distribute to 5 million Catholic voters a report hitting Biden’s record.

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Prominent Catholics and the Trump campaign have assailed the former vice president for saying he would renew the Obama administration’s court battle with the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns. The dispute was rooted in Affordable Care Act regulations forcing the order and other faith-based entities to violate their religious beliefs and provide health insurance that covers contraception, including some forms that Catholics consider abortifacients. The Trump administration expanded religious exemptions for the Obamacare contraception mandates.

News outlets spanning the political spectrum in their editorial leanings – from the Washington Post, Politico, Raw Story, Vanity Fair and CBS News, to Newsmax and the Washington Times — have all cited the Vote Common Good poll in exploring whether religious voters are turning from Trump. The survey and another by Fox News showing Trump’s support among evangelicals at 66% compared to 28% for Biden isn’t “evidence of collapsing approval for Trump among  these groups, but they may signal an erosion of support,” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson opined. “And Trump can’t afford to lose any ground among the base of his base.”

None of those stories, however, took a close look at the poll’s methodology, nor did any compare it to a host of other surveys that show evangelicals and Catholics steadily sticking with Trump.

Burch said he questioned whether those surveyed truly make their religious values a voting priority, which is difficult to determine without getting a sense of whether they regularly attend church or where they place religion as a voting priority.

“The problem is Catholic voters in particular, like most voters, aren’t one monolithic group,” Burch said. “If you take a generic poll among people who self-identify as Catholic but aren’t regularly practicing, that’s largely a meaningless poll. … [You need to] clarify that you’re surveying people that still take seriously what that religion teaches.”

Another hurdle in determining shifting support among different types of religious voters is the way each poll characterizes them or lumps different denominations together -- many times in ways the voters themselves would not. Case in point is the often-quoted Pew Research Center survey showing that 81% of white evangelicals cast their ballot for Trump in 2016 while just 16% did for Hillary Clinton. Pew’s definition of Protestant includes voters describing themselves as “Protestant,” “Mormon” or “other Christian” while the “white, born-again/evangelical Christian” definition includes both Protestants and non-Protestants, including “Catholics, Mormons, etc. who self-identify as born-again or evangelical Christians.”

Moreover, several recent surveys have shown consistently strong support for the president among white evangelicals, as well as with devout Catholics. The RealClear Opinion Research survey data shows that among the most devoted Catholics – those who pray and attend Mass regularly, and who adhered most closely to the teachings of the pope and the bishops – are also the most conservative. They tend to give Trump high job approval marks. A Quinnipiac poll released Sept. 2 found that 79% of white evangelicals approve of Trump while 20% disapprove of him. A Grinnell College poll released the same day found 63% of evangelicals back Trump while 27% support Biden. Those figures are above the 59% of those identifying as Protestant voters who said they backed Trump in 2016, according to CNN exit polls.

When it comes to the battleground states, several recent polls also show consistently strong support for Trump among evangelicals, though those surveys didn’t test his level of Catholic support. A Fox News survey found white evangelicals backed Trump 79% to 16% for Biden in North Carolina; 69% to 20% in Arizona; and 63% to 31% in Wisconsin. A Franklin & Marshall College poll released in late August found that in evangelical voters in Pennsylvania back Trump 69% to 22%.

Nance, who campaigned for Trump recently in Wisconsin, said support for the president remains strong among religious voters who view him as someone who fights for them and keeps his promises. The most important promise kept, she said, is his appointment of two pro-life judges to the Supreme Court and more than 200 conservative judges to the federal bench.

Meanwhile, Biden’s Democratic primary break with his decades-long support for the Hyde Amendment even raised eyebrows with Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod, who questioned how voters would view it. Nance recalled how she personally lobbied Biden many times over the course of two decades while he was a senator, and throughout all of those meetings he remained committed to his support for the amendment.

“I don’t recognize this Joe Biden,” Nance lamented. “He’s no longer moderate Joe. He’s a complete and utterly transformed leftist who thinks abortion should be legal anytime and anywhere, using any number of taxpayer dollars.”

Last year, Trump was the first president to attend the March for Life, along with Pence, and has consistently backed pro-life policies, including expanding policies to prevent billions of dollars from being spent on abortion abroad. Unlike several other U.S. presidents, Trump also made good on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and brokered the recent peace deal between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.

Nancy also pointed to Trump’s repeated defense of religious rights at home and abroad – issuing a religious freedom executive order in 2017 and another that targeted the Johnson Amendment, loosening its restrictions on the political activity of churches, she said.

“It’s the idea that when you walk out the church house doors, you can still practice your faith every day in your home and your business and in your life,” she said. “I think we agree that there’s a battle for the soul of America. Unfortunately, we think Joe Biden’s on the wrong side.”

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