Tuesday, 23 December 2003

Dean versus the God Complex

Both Matt Stinson and Robert Garcia Tagorda (via Matt Yglesias, who has substantive comment at TAPped and who in turn links Jon Chait’s Dean-bashing blog at TNR—got all that straight?) note the Franklin Foer cover story in The New Republic on Howard Dean’s secularism and how that will affect his campaign for both the Democratic nod and the White House.

Robert responds to Yglesias’ suggestion that the eventual Democratic nominee at least pretend to have devout religious faith by wondering whether or not Dean has the temperment to pull it off—and I generally agree with Robert that he probably doesn’t. Stinson (who I’d normally call “Matt,” but we’ve got too many Matts running around in this post), on the other hand, asks the interesting question:

The question left unasked in Foer’s piece is whether Dean might seek to balance against his secularism in the general election with an evangelical-friendly VP. Would a Methodist like Edwards suffice?

My guess would be no—it’d have to be someone who wears his religion on his sleeve for it to make a real impact with the public. An interesting finding of the 2000 American National Election Study is that Americans consistently misidentified the religion of both Bush and Gore: Gore was overwhelmingly believed to be a Methodist, while Bush was believed to be a Baptist. In fact, Gore—like Bill Clinton—was an avowed Southern Baptist, while Bush is a Methodist. (No, I’m not just raising this point to show the American public is stupid. Bear with me.)

Now, let’s play political psychologist and explain why people would have this apparently glaring misbelief. Most people see Baptists, and particularly Southern Baptists, as more evangelical than Methodists—because most, in fact, are; they don’t call the United Methodist Church the “Home of the Ten Suggestions” for nothing. But in the persons of Bush and Gore, the typical relationship was reversed: unlike Clinton, Gore never really wore his religion on his sleeve, while Bush often talked about his personal faith. Coupled with the heuristic that says “the Democrats are more secularist than the Republicans,” and the lack of widespread publicity about the specific branch of protestant teaching the candidates followed, the typical voter would be led to conclude that Bush was a member of more evangelical branch of protestantism (like the Southern Baptists), while Gore was part of a more traditionalist strain (like the Methodists).

Now, let’s look at the 2004 Democratic field. The only serious candidate with a clear religious bent is Joe Lieberman, whose Jewish faith is well-known (and was correctly identified by most voters in the 2000 ANES). The rest aren’t really clearly identifiable as men of faith… and religious voters are much more likely to favor candidates with strong faith (like Bush) over secularists like Dean or other, less devout candidates. Even if a candidate like Edwards who can make some claim of religious belief is on the ticket, most voters aren’t going to think of him as more religious than Bush. So it seems unlikely that religious considerations would be effective for Dean (or another Democrat) in assembling the ticket.