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Selzer: unchurched ‘swung’ Iowa election


The million-dollar question is: What do you do with this information?

Featured as a speaker at a TEDxDesMoines event Sunday aimed at women, nationally-respected pollster J. Ann Selzer rolled out some spectacularly stunning numbers on the recent presidential election voting in Iowa. It was worth the $12 admission — if you have even a passing interest in Iowa politics and our evolving culture.

In Selzer’s final Iowa Poll, conducted for The Des Moines Register, some expected trends emerged. Self-identified religious people were more likely to vote for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Iowa Catholics were going for Romney by 14 percent, Hawkeye State Protestants by 6 percent. That’s 88 percent of the electorate in Iowa. So how did President Barack Obama carry Iowa 52 percent to 46 percent (823,000 to 731,000)?                 

Non-religious people — those who told pollsters they had no church or faith, the “none” category — went heavily for the president. The Iowa Poll days before the election showed that demographic in the president’s camp by 43 percent.                 

On Election Day, exit polls showed President Obama, a Democrat, with 75 percent of the “no religion” vote compared to 22 percent for Romney — a door-busting 53 percent margin.                 

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“This is a group that you will now see rising,” Selzer said during the TEDxDesMoines remarks at Sticks.               

She added, “People don’t think of it as a swing group.”                 

The exit polls showed that Catholics and Protestants in Iowa went with Romney on Election Day by 5 percent and 7 percent respectively, Selzer said.                 

Taken collectively, Selzer said the voting data on the unchurched led to one clear conclusion. “It actually swung the election.”                 

Selzer said the numbers jumped out at her when she first spotted them in pre-election polling reports.                 

“This isn’t the way we understand Iowa to be,” said Selzer, president of West Des Moines-based Selzer and Company Inc. — a polling firm that has received post-election accolades for predicting the relatively wide margin for Obama when many peers saw the race as razor-thin.                 

Selzer is a numbers pro. She provides accurate insights and lets analysts, operatives and the media take the polls and suggest how campaigns can best use them.                 

For years, candidates have reached out to voters on religious grounds. President George W. Bush in 2004 famously referenced Jesus Christ as his most significant influence. During his time in the U.S. Senate, President Barack Obama delivered one of the more ground-breaking — even magisterial speeches — you’ll hear, a “Call to Renewal” address in which he frankly discussed his own Christian beliefs. Anyone who listens to that speech and thinks the president is a Muslim is a flag-flying racist.                 

Now we know that a major swing category, arguably the dominant swing category in Iowa statewide races, is non-religious people.                 

“We only now have found out that they matter,” Selzer told me after her speech Sunday night. “Let the conversation begin. It’s been below anybody’s radar.”              

So back to the lead question: Now that we know this, what can campaigns do about it? It’s not like cracking the Latino gap, where you support the DREAM Act, moderate on immigration reform, send Marco Rubio to Gov. Terry Branstad’s 66th birthday party and generally urge candidates to quit smearing Hispanics with cheap stereotyping.                 

Speaking at events for atheists (or even finding one in Iowa) or running as the candidate of the unwashed, God-less Iowans are the political equivalent of taking 200 sleeping pills and expecting to wake up rested and brimming for the next day. Campaigns can’t reach out to the non-religious with overt techniques, rhetoric.                 

So are there code words? Can candidates appeal to the non-believing in the same way the Republican Party reaches out to Southern racists — by saying things with winks rather than words?            

Being a stalwart for reducing global warming by accepting climate-change science? Supporting NASA and science programs? Supporting choice with abortion? Or just not talking about your religion publicly in the spirit of Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater? (Goldwater once said anyone who mixed God and politics ought to go straight to hell.)                 

Perhaps the best answer is the latter. Allow the opposition to cannibalize itself for a general election by trotting Bob Vander Plaats and Rick Santorum around the state, Pizza Ranch to Pizza Ranch. It’s not so much that they have such strong purported faiths; it’s that they are so damned sure they’re right about heaven and hell, the next life and what it takes to get there. Theirs is a language of exclusion. They act as if they have some Bat-phone connection with God.               

Maybe, VanderPlaats and Santorum are 100 percent right with their cocksure interpretations of what God wants from us. They may get to heaven as a result. But they’ll never reach the White House or Terrace Hill.                 

That’s not faith. That’s math. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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