Finally, the ideological profile of those who are only marginally, or not at all, religious will raise a few eyebrows. One of the most pronounced political divides in recent elections has been among those who do or do not attend religious services. In 2008, for example, John McCain secured 55 percent of the vote from those who attend religious services at least weekly — nearly 10 percentage points higher than his share of the total vote. Candidate Obama, however, won the affections of more than 60 percent of those who never or rarely attend services. Who would have thought, then, that barely three years later a comfortable majority (53 percent) of infrequent church-goers identify as conservative, or that the religiously inactive are only marginally more liberal (48 percent) than not (45 percent)? Nonreligious Americans in particular are angst-ridden over the sour economy. Over half (55 percent) reject Obama’s handling of the economy, and 60 percent feel he has both spent too much and failed to deliver on the jobs front.
The lesson here is that the conservative brand is perfectly acceptable in many corners of the coalition that comprises blue America. That may explain why strategists on the left feel it is so important to toss what Ross Perot famously described as “monkey dust” into the air to cloud debates on so many important policy issues and dissuade these voters from entertaining and ultimately embracing conservative solutions. It also explains why leftist politicians use conservative rhetoric to sell their wares: It not only works among middle-of-the-road voters, it can be effective within their own political base.
The debates that threaten to decouple these voters from the liberal political machine tend to involve questions of fairness, the best routes out of poverty, and how best to enable ordinary Americans to achieve the American Dream. These include policies that offer educational options to children in low-income families, require welfare recipients to work and act responsibly in exchange for benefits, and end discriminatory mandates that require employers and schools to prefer some racial groups over others.
These voters likely are turned off when government bureaucrats tilt the playing field in favor of the politically connected in energy or tax policy. Why, after all, should they pay more for the energy they consume just because government know-it-alls prefer ethanol, solar, and wind energy over nuclear, coal, natural gas, and oil? And how many of them look askance at Obama’s class-warfare rhetoric when they aspire to one day to be millionaires and even billionaires? It is not hard to imagine that, in today’s unforgiving economic climate, the conservative gene lurking within these voters may prove quite receptive to the case for free markets and free citizens, and if properly nurtured, may begin to emerge in voting behavior that surprises pundits on Election Day.
This is not to say that inner-city Detroit will be a welcoming venue for a CPAC convention any time soon. But because the conservative command of the ideological high ground extends to so many categories of non-traditional conservative voters, we need to develop more effective ways to communicate our policy ideas that appeal to their conservative instincts.
— Michael G. Franc is vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation.