Sunday, April 13, 2008

Obama's "Bittergate" Gaffe's Weakening Campaign Outreach

Barack Obama's "working class insensitivity" has mushroomed into a virtual scandal, with some folks describing the fracas as "Bittergate."

As I've noted, some on the left have tried to minimize the controversial nature of Obama's views, but
as the Politico reports, Obama's insensitivities are now coming back to bite him where it hurts, in campaign outreach and organization:

The furor surrounding Barack Obama’s comments about “bitter” small-town voters and their faith clouds an emerging story line that stood to benefit the eventual Democratic nominee at Republican John McCain’s expense.

That narrative was an ironic twist on longstanding partisan stereotypes: a November election that figured to be between a Democrat who is comfortable talking about faith and a Republican who is not.

But the Illinois senator’s controversial remarks about “bitter” small-town Pennsylvanians who “cling” to religion and other cultural stances out of economic despair — comments immediately characterized by New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and McCain as condescending — have suddenly reintroduced an unwelcome issue, undermining the progress made by concerted Democratic Party outreach to religious voters and reinvigorating criticism that the effort to woo religious voters is more rhetoric than substance.

“The danger, frankly, is that Democrats will be perceived as disingenuous,” said Laura Olson, a Clemson University professor who focuses on politics and religion. “What I really would be concerned about there is that Republicans could really spin this and they could say Obama is a Marxist. That’s what Marx said [about religion]: It’s the opiate of the masses.”

Democrats’ newfound openness on faith began as an attempt to close the party’s disadvantage with regular churchgoers. Democratic nominees have lost these voters by double digits, with the exception of 1992, since Ronald Reagan won the presidency.

This so-called “God gap” consumed Democrats following the 2004 presidential election, as George W. Bush won eight in 10 of those who voted on “moral values” and the GOP advantage with weekly church attendees soared to more than 20 percentage points.

That stark divide is at the root of Sunday’s “Compassion Forum,” which comes just nine days before the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, the second event of the Democratic primary season to feature a prominent discussion of the role of religion in politics.

“It is the culmination of three to three and a half years of effort and focus, working with the party to reengage, reactivate the conversation with the whole country, with people of faith,” said Burns Strider, who heads religious outreach efforts for Clinton. “Our candidates are not just desirous to talk about faith but they are people of faith.”

The Obama campaign argues that the Illinois senator was merely saying that “in our toughest times when Christians have our backs against the wall, we’re commanded to hold fast to our faith,” according to Joshua DuBois, Obama’s director of religious affairs.

Obama’s comment came to light the same day he announced his Catholic leadership team, which ranges from the prominent Hispanic Catholic leader Ron Cruz to Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.

“I never could have gotten a group like that to endorse [John F.] Kerry in 2004,” said Mara Vanderslice, the Kerry campaign’s director of religious outreach in 2004.

But Obama’s remarks overwhelmed the news of his Catholic outreach and threatened to sidetrack the party’s broader effort to make inroads with religious voters.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi began a Democratic Faith Working Group in 2005, led by Strider, precisely to counter perceptions that Democrats were irreligious, intolerant or looked down on to people of faith — an impression held by even some Democrats. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has consistently found that fewer than half of Democrats believe their party is “friendly toward religion.”

“Generally, over a generation now, the national party has been resistant to any discussion of religion. It’s been an almost exclusively secular point of view about what you are allowed to talk about,” Casey said.

“Voters make decisions about elections based on a lot of considerations and one is that they want to get a sense from a candidate of what they are all about, and if someone refuses to talk about their faith, that becomes a barrier to considering their stand on health care or Medicare,” Casey continued, noting that he has seen a sea change among Democrats.
This is a significant development, but I won't be convinced of a weakening of outreach until we see the next round campaign finance reporting.

If Obama's really losing support among key constituencies, we should some of
the big cash flowing his way start to dry up.