What the exit polls tell us

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. His column appears in the Jewish Light on the first Wednesday of every month. You can contact him at [email protected].

By Eric Mink

Nuggets mined from the exit polls and vote totals of last week’s election:

• In all his election campaigns and in carrying out his public responsibilities, ultra-conservative Republican Rep. Todd Akin has emphasized his faith as a born-again Christian, the base of his public support.

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Last week, 35 percent of white born-again Christian voters in Missouri — more than one-third — voted for Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill for U.S. Senate, not Akin.

Another pillar of Akin’s career has been his unswerving and absolute opposition to abortion. Yet in last Tuesday’s election, 30 percent of Missouri voters who said abortion should be illegal in most or all circumstances voted for McCaskill. McCaskill has consistently supported the rights of women to choose how to deal with their own pregnancies within the limits of law.

And so it went: 22 percent of Missouri conservatives — that’s more than a fifth — voted for McCaskill; 43 percent of rural voters voted for her; 20 percent of Missourians who voted for Republican Mitt Romney for president voted for Democrat McCaskill for senator.

What to make of this? A couple of things:

First, identity politics oversimplifies reality. In the real world, real people make their own individual decisions about what to believe and how to act. Their beliefs — and where those beliefs fall on their list of real-life priorities — are shaped and shaded by personal experiences and relationships, as well as by institutional associations. Individuals may match the stereotypes of their group labels, but they may defy expectations.

Assuming in advance that every born-again Christian or every opponent of abortion or every conservative or every rural resident believes and acts the same is a classic definition of bias. On a human level, it’s dismissive and ugly. And for anyone seeking common ground on issues, it can be self-defeating.

Second, these numbers confirm the accuracy of at least one of McCaskill’s campaign ads: Akin’s views really were too extreme for Missouri, a fact his record had established long before his nonsensical babbling about rape and pregnancy.

Or, as Republican strategist Steve Schmidt put it on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, “We gave up five U.S. Senate seats over the last two election cycles [because of] people who were just out there, completely extreme, manifestly unprepared for the offices that they’re running for.”

•  As the presidential election campaign revved up, the Roman Catholic Church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops mounted fresh legal challenges to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), the signature legislative achievement of President Barack Obama’s first term, claiming the law’s contraception requirements violate religious freedom. This despite the ACA’s accommodation of religious concerns through several different kinds of exceptions to the rules.

The church’s challenges have fared poorly in court so far — federal District Judge Carol Jackson dismissed one such case in October in St. Louis — and its condemnation of Obama proved impotent at the polls last week.

Nationally, Obama received the votes of 50 percent of voting Catholics, as well as 21 percent of voters who identified themselves as white born-again Christians, another religious subgroup whose leaders have been opposing Obama and the ACA.

The bishops might have given more consideration to the fact that American Catholics have long since rejected church efforts to assert authority over contraception. As I noted in a column some months ago, 98 percent of Catholic women have used some form of artificial birth control at some point in their lives, notwithstanding the church’s pronouncements.

• Missouri’s increasingly right-wing tilt is undeniable in presidential voting and in the composition of the state legislature. Yet Democrats — led by McCaskill in the Senate race and by Gov. Jay Nixon in his easy cruise to reelection — prevailed in all statewide races on the ballot except for Republican Peter Kinder’s reelection as lieutenant governor.

And the St. Louis region as a whole remains consistently liberal. The nine Missouri counties of the region cast 1,034,973 votes for president last week, of which 54.1 percent went to Obama and 45.9 percent to Romney. In the region’s eight Illinois counties, 50.1 percent of the presidential vote went to Obama and 49.9 percent to Romney.

Overall, the 17 bi-state counties of the St. Louis region cast 53.2 percent of their 1.3 million presidential votes for Obama and 46.8 percent for Romney.

• With last week’s elections over, media’s obsession with predicting the future has shifted to the future of the battered and rejected Republican Party.

Let the record show that if concerned Republicans want to find smart, competent people to help them design credible surveys, analyze data and plot a course back to meaningful participation in serving the public good, they don’t need journalists to clue them in.

But that’s apparently a big “if.”

On NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show” the morning after the election, Henry Olsen, a vice president at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that Republicans need “to start talking about why it is that people aren’t accepting the Republican message.” And this week, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia described his party’s key challenge to the New York Times: “The question really is, how do we set the best tone in delivering our conservative message so that it becomes more attractive to more people.”

Surely McDonnell and other shrewd Republicans understand that their increasing estrangement from women, Latinos and young Americans is not just a PR problem. What’s alienating voters are substantive Republican policy positions that run counter to their interests and concerns and their sense of what’s best for America.

• Finally, money. Liberals have been giddy since the election because a lot of very rich right-wingers lost many millions of dollars trying and failing to elect officials who would do their bidding once in office.

Let’s not be delusional. Yes, conservative outside groups outspent liberal ones and still lost, but money had a huge impact on this election.

Ask the Obama and Romney camps, for example, if the Obama campaign’s summertime barrage of ads portraying Romney as a cold rich finance guy out of touch with ordinary Americans was ineffective. They’d laugh in your face.

What really mattered last week: American voters who understood what was really responsible for their economic hardships; Democratic policies and strategies attuned to America’s changing demographic profile; a spectacular Democratic get-out-the-vote operation; defective Republican candidates and planning; and an intelligent, empathetic incumbent president grounded in reality.

But money mattered, too. And it’s debasing our election process, reinforcing our negative feelings about politics and politicians and  undermining our democracy.