March 29, 2020

Campaigns That Want to Win Should Reach Out to Secular Voters

It occurs to me that any political candidate who hopes to win a national election in the United States should be engaged in outreach to secular voters. There are a lot of us out there, and our numbers are growing. Some of us are liberals who often vote for Democratic candidates, and some are conservatives who often vote for Republican candidates. Unfortunately, we do not vote at anywhere near the rate of religious voters. This is a problem we need to fix, but it does present political candidates with an opportunity: recognize that we are a relatively untapped resource and make an effort to engage us.

Every political campaign is already involved in voter outreach, but we have not yet seen a campaign willing to get involved in secular voter outreach. I don't think much speculation is needed to figure out why this is the case; however, there is some evidence that anti-atheist attitudes are at least somewhat less problematic than they used to be. Assuming this progress continues, we may see the day when political campaigns cannot afford to ignore secular voters. Wouldn't it be nice to see some campaigns get out in front of this and start trying to connect with us before they have to? My guess is that the first few to do so would benefit greatly.

Some may protest that campaigns don't have an effective model for secular voter outreach, but I don't buy this. We aren't that different from other groups of voters most campaigns are targeting now. At least initially, I think it would be great simply to have our existence acknowledged. Some presidential candidates have done this in passing, and it does not appear to have hurt them. With that out of the way, campaigns could listen to secular voters and learn about us. I have seen little evidence that this is happening. Eventually, campaigns might even begin to hire secular outreach coordinators. These would be people who were more familiar with us than most, and some might even be atheists themselves. None of this seems particularly difficult. All that is missing is the will to get involved in outreach to secular voters.

But if they did secular outreach, wouldn't that hurt them with the vast Christian majority? This has been a commonly voiced concern, but relatively few Democratic voters seem to view the current Democratic candidates as being particularly religious anyway. Thus, I'm skeptical that secular outreach efforts would have the downside that might have once been the case. Democratic voters, especially the younger ones, are less religious these days.

Another common objection is that campaigns don't need to reach out to us because we'll support them anyway. I'm sure this is true for some atheists, but our relatively low voter turnout tells me that this may be a false assumption. Secular voters stay home at a higher rate than religious voters. Could this be at least partially due to the sense among some secular voters that candidates do not share their values? Ellen Johnson, a former president of American Atheists, once said she did not think atheists should vote until we had openly atheist candidates. I thought this was nonsense, but I have heard similar views from some atheists. It is hard to blame them. When given the choice between two candidates who are both promoting Christian privilege and superstition, what is an atheist voter to do?

I cannot help feeling encouraged when I think about the potential of secular voter outreach. At the beginning of every U.S. presidential election, atheists and other secular voters take to social media to express themselves. This year, one of the most common statements one sees is, "I'm an atheist, and I vote." It is a simple but effective message that needs to be heard. Of course, this sort of thing needs to be sustained year-round and applied to local and state elections too. There is no question that politically active atheists and other secular voters have our work cut out for us and much room for improvement. At the same time, there is so much untapped potential there that it is cool to think about what we could accomplish if we finally woke up and came together.

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