Courting atheist conservatives: a misguided strategy, statistically

Yesterday marked the close of the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual gathering of political conservatives both in office and out. Speakers this year represented the Tea Party movement, firearms advocates, and anti-choice factions -- names like Sarah Palin, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and Wayne LaPierre. It's not an exaggeration to say that CPAC would be viewed by many Secular Americans as an event frequented by zealots, religious extremists, and theocrats -- people with whom they have little to nothing in common, politically.

CPAC might be an unexpected place to find atheist leaders, but that's exactly what did happen this year, and some controversy has erupted, with supporters of the secular movement wondering how to interpret the actions of a prominent atheist figure who represented his organization at CPAC, then gave an interview suggesting overlap between the anti-choice position on abortion and a secular worldview.

[First, some point/counterpoint background that might help:]

Where the problem started

I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion. You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage. - David Silverman, President, American Atheists

Silverman's partially right. Abortion isn't "as clear cut" as those other issues. Compared with school prayer, it's more clear cut that Secular Americans favor abortion rights. Only 1.1% of registrants want abortion restricted to cases of rape, incest, and/or threats to the woman's life (likely agreeing with the most liberal but least numerous of CPAC attendees). And no one in the 4-digit sample we queried this morning had expressed the viewpoint that abortion should be illegal (the presumptive CPAC position).

    Which of these statements best describes your opinion about abortion?

  • 55.4% Abortion should be legal without any restrictions beyond those applied to any other medical procedure.
  • 43.0% Abortion should be legal but with reasonable restrictions on gestational stage.
  • 00.9% Abortion should be legal only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the woman's life.
  • 00.2% Abortion should be legal only to save the woman's life.
  • 00.0% Abortion should be illegal.
  • 00.5% Undecided / other

Compare these with a nuanced look at our public school prayer figures where, despite a majority (76.6%) opposed, we still find a tiny sample (0.1%) judging it "fine," 0.4% willing to accept prayer on special occasions and/or allow communities to vote, and a rather surprising 22.8% approving of official minutes of silence:

    Which of these statements best describes your opinion of school-sponsored prayer in public education?

  • 76.6% School-sponsored prayer has no place in public education.
  • 22.8% School-sponsored prayer should not occur, but official minutes of silence when students can pray/meditate privately are fine.
  • 00.2% School-sponsored prayer should be accommodated but only at special events such as graduation.
  • 00.2% Parents and/or student bodies should be able to vote whether to have school-sponsored prayer.
  • 00.1% School-sponsored prayer is fine.
  • 00.2% Undecided / other

Even on the issue of gay marriage, consistently supported by an overwhelming majority of registrants, we see 1.8% willing to substitute civil unions and/or allow states to decide, and almost twice as many (0.9%) unsure as with abortion.

    Which of these statements best describes your opinion about gay couples marrying?

  • 97.3% Gay couples should be able to marry in all states.
  • 01.0% States should be able to decide whether to perform gay marriages and whether to recognize marriages performed in other states.
  • 00.6% Gay marriage should not be recognized in any state but all states should allow gay couples to enter into civil unions.
  • 00.2% States should be able to decide whether to formalize civil unions and whether to recognize civil unions from out of state.
  • 00.0% Gay couples should not be able to marry or enter into civil unions in any state.
  • 00.9% Undecided / other

What's going on? Why are secular organizations reaching out to conservatives, particularly the far right wing of the GOP?

We're aware of two national secular organizations that participated in CPAC. Their reasoning, in their own words:

The [Secular Coalition for America] attended the conference with the goal of educating attendees on the nontheist community and the benefits of working to attract non-religious voters. [March 7 e-mail]

'Conservative' isn’t a synonym for 'religious.' In fact, a fifth of conservatives seldom or never pray, and the same number state religion is not important in their lives. If conservatism doesn’t embrace religious neutrality, its influence will wither and die. [David Silverman as quoted in American Atheists' February 25 press release]

The American Atheists strategy at CPAC was apparently to present abortion as an opening for conservative groups in search of atheist supporters. We have no information about how SCA presented its case, but based on the viewpoints of American Secular Census registrants, abandoning conservative positions entirely is probably what these political factions would need to do to appeal to a population which is largely pro-choice, pro-marriage-equality, pro-separation-of-church-and-state, ... and mostly Democratic.

In the 2012 presidential election, support for the GOP candidate, Mitt Romney, was dead last among Census registrants who voted, and those selecting a third party candidate went Green over Libertarian 2 to 1. The vast majority voted for Barack Obama, and political donations leaned heavily toward the Democratic Party, its candidates, and related PACs.

[These questions have 4-digit and high 3-digit sample sizes.]

    For which presidential candidate did you vote in 2012? [Question visible only to those who've indicated they voted.]

  • 82.5% Barack Obama
  • 06.2% Jill Stein
  • 03.1% Gary Johnson
  • 00.9% Mitt Romney
  • [remainder were other / can't remember / etc.]

    For which party's candidates do you normally vote? [Question visible only to those who've indicated they're registered.]

  • 63.9% Democratic
  • 16.9% no consistent pattern but lean Democratic
  • 10.9% no consistent pattern at all
  • 03.3% no consistent pattern but lean Libertarian
  • 02.5% Libertarian
  • 01.9% no consistent pattern but lean "other"
  • 01.8% no consistent pattern but lean Green
  • 01.7% Green
  • 01.7% no consistent pattern but lean Socialist
  • 01.5% Republican
  • 00.9% no consistent pattern but lean Republican
    [Even smaller percentages for "other," Socialist, Communist, lean Communist. 0% for Constitution and Reform parties.]
  • Estimated total donated to Democratic groups or candidates in the 2011-12 election cycle:

  • 64.1% $0
  • 33.6% $1-500
  • 01.4% $501-1000
    [higher $ ranges all under 1%]
  • Estimated total donated to Republican groups or candidates in the 2011-12 election cycle:

  • 97.8% $0
  • 02.0% $1-500
  • 00.2% $501-1000
    [higher $ ranges all 0%]
  • [Donation questions are not mutually exclusive, so there may be overlap.]

Historically, secular identity organizations have gone to some trouble to accommodate their conservative minorities, taking care not to alienate Republican and/or libertarian members with positions too far to the left on issues (like reproductive rights) that might be seen as "non-core." One of our motivations for creating the American Secular Census was, in fact, to try to quantify the prevalence of conservatism among Secular Americans, since we have suspected for some time that it is less than believed by organizations' leaders, boards, and staff. So far, our statistics have borne out this theory. So why are groups continuing to accommodate -- and now actively courting -- conservatives into the secular movement, especially at a time when organizations' support for, and relevance to, women is being debated?

Maybe secular leaders aren't aware of these political statistics ...? Except that they are. These very figures were posted by us on a listserv of leader-subscribers of these two and many other organizations in July of 2013, following a claim by one leader that 30% of secular voters are Republican. We asked for a citation on that figure, were never given a primary source for it, and then posted these figures as clarification for our request. There was no followup to our post.

Maybe secular leaders doubt the veracity of these statistics ...? Possibly, because the American Secular Census is a self-selecting Web survey, and for now, each analysis is considered a "snapshot" more than a statistically valid result with margins of error. But it's hard to see how the inherent bias of a survey like ours would extend to political affiliations or voting patterns, and we have not promoted it in any way that would create such a skew.

Maybe group strategies reflect the personal opinions of their leaders more than those of the constituencies they claim to serve ...? That's one interpretation arising from the CPAC controversy. Only the organizations themselves could respond.

At the American Secular Census we envision a secular movement which is as large and effective as possible. To that end, we provide statistics which we feel can inform organizations advocating for the rights and interests of Secular Americans. We encourage attention to these statistics as an evidence-based approach to mission and strategy.

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