Interpreting Election Results
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
The elections are finally over and legislators will soon start preparing for the next session of the North Dakota Legislative Assembly.
Elections are important, but some people over-interpret the results. To these prognosticators the fact that President Obama beat Mitt Romney by a mere 2.8% of the vote is proof that the Republican Party is doomed. Within North Dakota some look at the large Republican majority in the legislature and control of all the statewide offices as proof that the state Democrats have reached their twilight years. At the same time, some politicians look at Heidi Heitkamp’s victory as a sign that the Democrats are on the rise in the state.
In fact, little has changed. The party split in the state legislature is about the same as it was before the election. The state’s congressional delegation consisted of two Republicans and one Democrat before the election and it will have the same breakdown in the new congressional session. The only statewide office that “changed parties” is the officially nonpartisan position of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Some people see victory or loss where there was not even a race. Such is the case for those who declared that the Catholic bishops “took a beating” in the elections. This was news to us who work for the bishops since we did not have a horse in any race. The bishops do not support or oppose candidates or parties, but some people misconstrue teaching about issues as episcopal endorsement of particular candidates. Based on the emails we get, letters to the editors, and blog posts, partisans from both ends commit this error. The same statement by a bishop can be read as supporting Democrats by one person and as supporting Republicans by another.
These partisans fail to realize that if a political party or candidate’s positions come down on one side or another of the Church’s teachings it is solely because of the choices made by the candidate or the party, not the choices of the bishops. The bishops express unchanging teachings. Certainly the issues change with time. The claim to same-sex “marriage,” the recent threats to religious freedom, and the need for immigration reform did not exist a few years ago. The bishops, however, rarely drive the political agenda. They respond to it.
The bishops do take positions on issues such as defending marriage. Here again, people can misinterpret election results. Some have declared defeat. However, as USCCB’s Sister Mary Ann Walsh pointed out, “There was a stronger vote for defense of marriage in Maine, Minnesota, Maryland and Washington State than for the GOP slate. Looks like defense of marriage is a bi-partisan issue.”
Similarly, those seeking to discredit the Catholic Church have said that the bishops’ opposition to the HHS contraception and sterilization mandate was a failure because President Obama was reelected. The effort, however, was never directed at the President. Moreover, there is some evidence that the administration’s attack on religious liberty actually made the race closer than it would have been by boosting Mitt Romney’s numbers.
Proponents of abortion claimed that the elections and exit polls showed that the pro-life movement is dead. Those exit polls, however, actually found that a majority of the voters oppose abortion in most cases. Polls of the larger population reveal no recent change in public opinion, which is slightly more pro-life than pro-abortion rights.
Political trends do exist. They can be measured and form the bases of respectable forecasts. Separating fact from opinion, however, is getting more difficult. Political spin doctors, whose credibility was always suspect, have been joined by biased bloggers and comboxers.
As people of faith, we can take some comfort in knowing that much of this prognostication is folly. Ultimately, what matters is the Truth made known to us by the Incarnation.