UNITY, Ohio –Before the 2008 presidential election, a stark billboard
— white letters on a black background — on the edge of a cornfield in this small eastern Ohio town proclaimed: "I saw that. God."
Candidate Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in 2008 captured 43 percent of voters who attend religious services regularly, up from the
39 percent who supported John Kerry four years earlier, according to Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life exit polling.
That "God vote" helped them win in Ohio, Indiana and Florida.
This year, Democrats have a "God vote" deficit, despite the hard work of Burns Strider, Eleison Group founding partner and former religious outreach director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
"I am not surprised by the polling in this cycle," he says, pointing to a Pew report showing an overall drop in religious voters’ support of Democrats. "It isn’t Armageddon yet, but it is the task of party activists to keep having broad, open and honest dialogue with the faith voters."
Polls show more religiously observant people are more likely to disapprove of the president’s job performance, says Mark Rozell, a George Mason University professor of public policy.
Many of these values voters believed Obama was different from others in his party, Rozell explains. "In 2008, he really seemed to understand ‘God talk.’ His evangelical style of discourse made him seem authentic to many of the religious voters who supported him."
That’s not the only "God vote" the president is losing: His support among Jewish voters has dropped into dangerous territory.
Jews are less than thrilled with the Obama administration and its foreign policy, "which could translate into discontent with the Democratic Party in the midterm elections," says Jeff Brauer, a Keystone College political science professor.
"What is at issue is the administration’s new openness to the Muslim world while maintaining a very icy relationship with and directing harsh criticism towards the government of Israel."
Jews are fewer than 3 percent of Americans but their concentration in California, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Massachusetts makes them important in key House and Senate races, Brauer says.
"Religious groups are often crucial elements of electoral coalitions — the closer the election, the more they can matter," says John Green, a University of Akron political science professor who studies religion and American politics.
Candidate Obama was all style and promise of being different; President Obama’s policies make many of the faithful uncomfortable.
"In the end, the so-called values voters care about policy more than style," says Rozell.
"There is a general pulling-away from the Democrats because of anger about the current state of affairs and pessimism about the direction of the country," says Bert Rockman, a Purdue University political science professor.
He isn’t terribly surprised to see that tendency especially strong among those who defected to Obama in 2008.
What that means in November’s close House and Senate races in North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana will be interesting.
Brauer says the decreasing "God vote" will be most prominent with fiscally conservative Democrats: "Most of the Blue Dog Democrats heavily rely on the faithful vote to keep their seats, especially if they are in predominantly Republican districts."
Faith-filled voters who tend to be socially conservative could connect comfortably with a true Republican just as easily as with a socially conservative Democrat. Blue Dog Democrats should beware this trend in the midterms.
Rozell would not be surprised if Jewish support for Democrats increases by November. "But it remains troubling for the party that it needs to spend a lot of effort now at rebuilding its support among such a reliable voting bloc," he says.
Think of the dilemma this way: Can Democrats, who made some gains with Catholics and evangelicals in 2006 and 2008 by reaching out, realistically think of expanding that base while trying to regain their traditional Jewish support?