Yesterday’s New York Times included a brief but useful summary by John Broder about Sen. John McCain’s progress in reinventing himself from the brave maverick of GOP politics into the Chosen One of Republican elites, including many key veterans of George W. Bush’s two campaigns.I’ve long been a skeptic about McCain’s ability to propitiate the conservative ideologues that still own the Republican Party without losing the reputation that would make him a formidable nominee in 2008. But he’s off to a pretty good start, given his consistent front-running status in early GOP ’08 polls; his love-fest with prominent Bushies; and the high esteem he still enjoys from many mainstream media types. And lest we forget, the combination of very high and relatively positive name ID and insider backing is what lifted McCain’s former nemesis, George W. Bush, to the nomination in 2000.Broder’s summary of McCain’s pivot does not mention one factoid that the photo accompanying it illustrates: McCain yukking it up with attendees of the Iowa State Fair. He famously skipped the Iowa Caucuses in 2000, after conspicuously disrespecting the Ethanol Subsidy that ranks just behind the State Fair’s Butter Cow sculpture as Iowa’s Most Sacred Cow. McCain has now flip-flopped on ethanol, and is spending a lot of time in Iowa.McCain’s pivot, of course, most depends on the panic of Republicans who see the White House slipping away in 2008, and figure only a “maverick” like the Arizonan can save their bacon. The same underlying dynamic may doom a McCain general election candidacy, and thus his “electability” appeal, particularly if he continues to flip-flop on domestic issues, while championing the Bush administration’s disastrous course of action in Iraq.And even if McCain goes into the presidential cycle as the clear GOP front-runner, there’s no question many conservative movement types will continue to cast about for an alternative. At one point, Sen. George Allen of VA looked like a strong possibility for the Anybody-But-McCain (ABM) effort, but his sparse positive qualifications are clearly being overwhelmed by his current troubles. Right now the big debate about Allen is whether he’s a racist obnoxious jerk, or an equal-opportunity obnoxious jerk. No less an authority than Charlie Cook is already saying Allen’s presidential star has fatally fallen, and for that matter, Georgie is now in danger of losing his Senate seat.At present, the insider buzz about GOP alternatives to McCain revolves around Mitt Romney of Massachussets. Aside from the improbability of the Right readily embracing a guy once thought of as a northeastern moderate, whose most notable recent accomplishment was signing a quasi-universal health insurance bill, there’s the Mormon Issue. Last year Amy Sullivan wrote an important article examining probable conservative evangelical concerns about a Mormon candidate, but the problem could go deeper, since the unusual nature of LDS doctrines could discomfit some Catholics, mainstream Protestants and secular conservatives as well as evangelicals.The real darkhorse for the ABM mantle remains Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Expect a boomlet to form around him at some point in the near future.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
June 2: Rise of Religious “Nones” a Mixed Blessing for Democrats
Since I’m always standing at the intersection of politics and religion, I’m always interested in fresh data on the subject, and wrote some up at New York:
One of the big predictions in American politics lately, of infinite comfort to embattled progressives, is that the increasing number of religiously non-affiliated Americans, particularly among younger generations, will spur a steady leftward drift. Perhaps that will mean, we are told, that Democrats will be able to build their elusive permanent majority on the grounds of abandoned houses of worship. Or perhaps, some hope, the religious roots of today’s Republican extremism will begin to wither away, allowing American conservatives to resemble their less intemperate distant cousins in other advanced democracies, ending the culture wars.
Both propositions may be true. But it’s a mistake to treat so-called nones as an undifferentiated secularist mass, as Eastern Illinois University political scientist Ryan Burge explains with some fresh data. He notes that “in 2022, 6% of folks were atheists, 6% were agnostics, and another 23% were nothing in particular.” This large bloc of “nothing in particular” voters may lean left, all other things being equal, but they tend to be as uninterested in politics as in religion, making them a less than ideal party constituency. He explains:
“To put this in context, in 2020 there were nearly as many nothing in particulars who said that they voted for Trump as there were atheists who said that they voted for Biden.
“While atheists are the most politically active group in the United States in terms of things like donating money and working for a campaign, the nothing in particulars are on another planet entirely.
“They were half as likely to donate money to a candidate compared to atheists. They were half as likely to put up a political sign. They were less than half as likely to contact a public official.
“This all points to the same conclusion: they don’t vote in high numbers. So, while there may be a whole bunch of nothing in particulars, that may not translate to electoral victories.”
As Burge mentioned, however, there is a “none” constituency that leans much more strongly left and is very engaged politically — indeed, significantly more engaged than the white evangelicals we’re always hearing about. That would be atheists. In a separate piece, he gets into the numbers:
“The group that is most likely to contact a public official? Atheists.
“The group that puts up political signs at the highest rates? Atheists.
“HALF of atheists report giving to a candidate or campaign in the 2020 presidential election cycle.
“The average atheist is about 65% more politically engaged than the average American.”
And as Thomas Edsall points out in a broader New York Times column on demographic voting patterns, atheists really are a solid Democratic constituency, supporting Biden over Trump in 2020 by an incredible 87 to 9 percent margin. It’s worth noting that the less adamant siblings of the emphatically godless, agnostics, also went for Biden by an 80 to 17 percent margin and are more engaged than “nothing in particulars” as well.
So should Democrats target and identify with atheists? It’s risky. Despite the trends, there are still three times as many white evangelicals as atheists in the voting population. And there are a lot more religious folk of different varieties, some of whom have robust Democratic voting minorities or even majorities who probably wouldn’t be too happy with their party showing disdain for religion entirely. There’s also a hunt-where-the-ducks-fly factor: If atheists and agnostics already participate in politics and lean strongly toward Democrats, how much attention do they really need? There’s a reason that politicians, whatever their actual religious beliefs or practices, overwhelmingly report some religious identity. Congress lost its one professed atheist when California representative Pete Stark lost a Democratic primary in 2012; the only professed agnostic in Congress is Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, whose political future isn’t looking great.
It’s a complicated picture. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat argues that American liberalism’s increasing identification with secularism is keeping a lot of conservative Christians from politically expressing their reservations about Donald Trump. And religious people beyond the ranks of conservative faith communities may feel cross-pressured if Democratic politicians begin to reflect the liberal intelligentsia’s general assumption that religion is little more than a reactionary habit rooted in superstition and doomed to eventual extinction.
Perhaps it makes more sense for Democratic atheists and agnostics to spend time educating and mobilizing the “nothing in particular” Americans who already outnumber white evangelicals and ought to be concerned about how they’ll be treated if a Christian-nationalist Gilead arises. Only then can “nones” become the salvation for the Democratic Party.