In a speech on election night, the Republican candidate for governor, Loren Culp, didn’t seem all that surprised he was losing handily to the Democrat, Jay Inslee.
But that sex ed in the schools? Unthinkable.
“Sixty percent of the population of this state wants the comprehensive sex ed bill, really?” Culp asked the crowd, which booed. “I’ve not met anyone who wants that. Yet they’re telling us it’s passed? You’ve got to be kidding me!”
This seemed to be a widely shared reaction across the political right. Referendum 90, to mandate sex education in the schools, had seemed in the spring to be one of those issues where leftists had just meddled too far into the affairs of parents and families. Opponents swiftly gathered twice the signatures needed to repeal the Legislature’s bill, and the Republican party put money in and ran with the repeal movement as a can’t-miss rallying cry against overbearing government.
So it seemed to stun everyone how easily such a formerly hot-button topic could sail through. Sex ed won by about 16 percentage points and carried 14 counties, including two in Eastern Washington.
Why? In my view it was because of Washington state’s most profound political development in recent years — the religion gap.
We talk all the time about the gender gap in voting, the education gap and the urban-rural divide. But in our state an even bigger influence on local politics is religion. Or rather, lack of religion.
In surveys of state voters released for the 2020 election, the group answering “none” to the question of “what is your religion?” easily forms the largest religious group in this state. The “Nones” made up 34% of the state electorate this year, according to the Votercast survey of 110,000 voters by AP and other news organizations in all 50 states (including about 2,400 here).
That’s far higher than evangelical and born-again Christians at 19%, or Catholics at 14%. It’s quite different here than nationally, where both Protestants and Catholics outnumber the Nones.
Also 45% of Washington voters answered “never” when asked how often they go to church.
The campaign to repeal the sex ed law was energized by churches and anti-abortion groups, and backed by the Washington State Catholic Conference.
“It’s not for nothing that two-thirds of the signatures on the Parents For Safe Schools petition came from church sites,” the conservative magazine National Review noted. “Christianity has its own theology of sexuality and the body that has been thought-through and developed over the course of two thousand years.”
Twenty years ago, this argument and this church-led coalition might have won (as it periodically did on gay rights and other social issues). But now in this state, the Nones rule local politics. The Nones tend to be strongly pro-science and against anything that smacks of morality-policing.
In the voter survey, Protestants voted for governor candidate Loren Culp (and also Donald Trump) by about 15 percentage points, 57% to 42%. But the Nones backed Inslee (who signed the sex ed bill) by an overwhelming 55 points, 77% to 22%.
The voter survey suggested the candidates’ scientific approaches to the coronavirus — or lack of it, in the cases of Trump and Culp — also played a role in these enormous gaps.
The campaign in favor of sex ed got a slew of endorsements from liberal church leaders, so religion did weigh in on both sides. But the issue with the Nones isn’t that religion is bad; it’s that it needs to be kept out of secular government policymaking. And science needs to be in.
As I wrote two years ago about this fastest-growing religious group in the state: “Whatever you call them, in statewide elections or in the Seattle suburbs, either appeal to the Nones or forget it.”
One thing the presidential race showed, the elections have turned a bluer shade even without a blue wave, and of course Democrats dominated here locally as they usually do. But the surveys of voters did contain some warning signs for liberals.
One is the way Trump attracted a larger share of both Black and Hispanic voters nationally than any Republican in decades. Why? There are undoubtedly multiple reasons, as there usually are anytime diverse sets of voters get grouped in categories. But it’s surprising given Trump’s racially-charged approach. Democrats may now wonder: Did they take voters of color too much for granted?
The other is that the exit survey asked Washington state voters whether they approve of the protests against police violence. By four points, 52% to 48%, voters here said “no.” That’s a middling result, but it’s down a lot from last summer (a Crosscut poll in July found broad statewide support, at +16). Voters said they strongly favor criminal justice reform, but the regular “smash-em-ups” in Seattle and Portland may be wearing on even this state’s liberal electorate.
Last week I profiled a Seattle Trump voter, a moderate who became disillusioned with the president and dumped him for Biden. National voters surveys found that 8% of Trump voters in 2016 switched to Biden like this, versus only 4% of all 2016 Democratic voters switching over to the president. Combined with new voters, this makes up about all of Biden’s lead in the popular vote.
Speaking of mattering, how ’bout that Clallam County? The Wall Street Journal reported last year that the Olympic peninsula home of Port Angeles, Forks and the Makah Indian Reservation is one of only 19 “bellwether” counties in the nation to vote for every presidential winner since 1980, no matter which party.
As we went to press Friday, it appears Clallam did it again, backing Biden by about six points. That looks to be 11 presidential pick ’ems in a row, spanning 40 years. Maybe we should spare the two-year-long campaign with its $14 billion in consultants and insufferable advertising, and just let Port Angeles choose next time?