Republicans lost votes across all age groups in the 2006 midterm elections,but it was young voters who moved the furthest from the GOP. According to the Pew Research Center survey in February, support for Democratic candidates jumped from 16 percent to 26 percent among white evangelicals under 30 between the 2004 and 2006 elections.
"Many people have become disillusioned by President Bush, but younger evangelicals have gone from being very enthusiastic supporters of the president to being markedly less so and their party IDs have also switched," said John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The turn of events presents an opening for Democrats to make inroads among this younger generation of voters, whose parents and grandparents have traditionally aligned themselves with the GOP. "It's possible that this weakening will give Democrats a big opportunity and that they'll make good on that opportunity at least for the purposes of 2008 to persuade a larger number of young evangelicals to vote for their nominees," said Green.
Assuming the numbers are accurate, just how meaningful are they? It's possible that they aren't very meaningful at all. What's important isn't so much the current support for Democrats, but the long-term support for Democrats. It's possible, for example, that current shifts among young evangelicals are simply reflective of common shift among people of this age across many demographic groups — and that over the long term, many of these same people shift back to being more conservative/Republican.
Demographic trends aren't set in stone, of course, which means that even if what I describe here were 100% true, it is still possible to "make inroads" among young evangelicals in a manner that leads to long-term shifts in voting patterns. At the same time, though, Democrats must not do things which drive away more secular and less religious voters — the fastest growing group in America today.
Democrats shouldn't take the secular, irreligious voters for granted because being secular rather than religious doesn't imply any particular political philosophy. If Republicans were to suddenly discover the value of secularism and stop getting behind extremist religious policies, they would theoretically attract a significant number of secular voters who lean conservative and/or libertarian already.
It is not so much that swathes of once Republican-supporting evangelicals are switching allegiance but more a question of taking a sceptical look at the narrow agenda that has defined their relationship with the Republican Party, according to John Green, of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "Questions like climate change, poverty and international human rights are coming to the fore, in a community that didn't used to talk about these things at all," Mr Green said.
Evidence of a subtle realignment, can be seen in the main sanctuary of Northland Church, in Orlando, Florida - a space that used to be a roller-skating rink until it was taken over by Pastor Joel Hunter. The conservatively-dressed but sprightly mid-Westerner serves a 7,000-strong congregation that broadcasts its services live to thousands more on the internet. He recently wrote a book called "Right Wing, Wrong Bird" outlining his concerns, and hopes for the future.
"There has to emerge a new constituency and a new set of leaders for the evangelical Christians in this country," he told the BBC Heart and Soul programme. "We want to build a culture of life - but that includes the vulnerable outside the womb, as well as the vulnerable inside the womb. "We've had too long a time where we make people who disagree with us into enemies," he added. "I think that's not Christ-like or even intelligent. This whole thing is not a struggle over ideology, it's a struggle over power."
These concerns won't just potentially benefit non-Republicans, but also Republicans who won't identify so strongly with the far Christian Right — politicians like Rudy Giuliani, for example, despite his constant far-right pandering. Republicans like Giuliani need to pander to the far-right in order to attract votes from the GOP base of religious extremists, but it seems likely that he'd attract the more moderate evangelicals without it.
What this suggests is that Democrats can attract their votes as well, and also without pandering to religion and prinking for religious conservatives. This would contradict the regular drum-beat we hear about how Democrats need to talk about religion and faith in order to win elections in America. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy because constant faith-talk leads to expectations for more faith-talk and drives out those who are uncomfortable or unimpressed by it. It's also a betrayal of some of the basic liberal principles of the Democratic Party which should focus more on secularism and public reason, not faith and private revelation.