Election analysis reveals pronounced ‘God gap’ between parties

November 5, 2004, Kim Lawton, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Distributed by Religion News Service

WASHINGTON – Despite efforts by Democrats to reach out to faith-based voters, a detailed exit poll analysis of Tuesday’s election shows a “God gap” between the parties, with Republicans building support in almost every major religious group, including black Protestants.

According to exit polls conducted for the PBS television program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly,” the more often voters attended religious services, the more likely they were to vote for President Bush. At the same time, those who described themselves as “secular” or having no religious affiliation voted overwhelmingly for John Kerry.

This continues trends identified in the 2000 election.

“The religion gap was more pronounced. It may be that this is going to be a feature of American politics for some years to come,” John C. Green of the University of Akron told “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.”

Green, one of the nation’s leading experts on religion and politics, and the director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, analyzes the faith factors in the election on the national PBS program airing this weekend.

In 2004, Bush’s victory came from a broad religious coalition that depended heavily on evangelicals and regular-Mass attending Roman Catholics, but it included other faith traditions as well.

According to the polls, the vast majority of white born-again Protestants – 78 percent – voted for Bush. Nearly 86 percent of evangelicals who attend church more than once a week voted for the President.

But Green said Bush also successfully reached out to mainline Protestants. A slight majority of mainline Protestants voted for Bush, although those numbers appeared to decline from 2000.

“It looks like Bush actually did pretty well among moderate and liberal white Protestants who say they go to church a few times a month,” Green said. “This was a key group that Kerry wanted.”

One significant religious shift occurred among black Protestants, who traditionally have voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Although only about 11percent of African-Americans overall voted for Bush, 16 percent of those who identified themselves as black Protestants voted for him. That’s double the number of black Protestants who voted for him in 2000. And the numbers jumped dramatically for those who attend church more than once a week: 22 percent of those black Protestants voted for Bush.

“Given the closeness of the election, for him to have eaten in to this core Democratic group, I think, is impressive,” said Green.

This year, Bush also received a majority of the Catholic vote. Fifty-two percent of all Roman Catholics voted for Bush, while 48 percent voted for Kerry. In 2000, Al Gore, a Baptist, received half of the Catholic vote, while Bush got 46 percent.

“This is all the more remarkable given that Senator Kerry is a Roman Catholic. Clearly the level of Catholic support for Kerry stands in stark contrast to Catholic support given to (John F.) Kennedy less than 50 years ago,” said Corwin Smidt, editor of the new book Pulpit and Politics.

Among regular Mass-goers, the numbers were even more pronounced: 58
percent of Catholics who attend church more than once a week voted for Bush. Within the Catholic population overall, Kerry only received a majority from Catholics who say they never go to Mass and those who say they only attend Mass a few times a year.

Kerry did receive a majority (58 percent) of the Hispanic Catholic vote. Latinos have traditionally leaned Democratic. However, Bush made significant gains within the community. Thirty-nine percent of Latino Catholics voted for him this year, compared to only 30 percent in 2000.

“It may be that some of the ‘values’ issues helped pull these people to Bush, which was very significant, particularly in places like New Mexico and Colorado,” Green said.

Republicans also continued to make inroads within the Jewish community, another traditional Democratic stronghold. Twenty-four percent of Jews voted for Bush in 2004, compared to almost 20 percent in 2000.

The most dramatic religious shift occurred among Muslims. Ninety-two percent of Muslims voted for Kerry, and only 6 percent voted for Bush. In 2000, the majority of Muslims voted for Bush, but many in the community now feel betrayed by post 9/11 security crackdowns, which they believe unfairly target them. Muslims are still developing politically, and only make up about one percent of the total electorate.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who make up about 2 percent of the electorate, voted overwhelmingly Republican, casting 80 percent of their votes for the president.

While Bush’s religious coalition was broad, scholars said evangelicals and conservative Catholics provided the key.

“The political mobilization of evangelical Protestants that (Ronald) Reagan began has been the most important change in the past quarter-century of American electoral politics,” said Laura Olson, associate professor of political science at Clemson University. “This political realignment has led many people of faith to view the Republican Party as the only party that takes its needs and concerns seriously.”

Many analysts said the numbers provide stark evidence that the Democratic Party is increasingly out of step with large segments of the faith community.

“Since about 40 percent of all Americans attend church weekly, the Democrats will have a hard time electing a president until they are more sensitive to the concerns of the church-going populace,” said Stephen Monsma, Research Fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College. He added: “There are ways they can do this and still largely maintain their liberal issue positions, but they must become much more sophisticated in doing so.”

But Professor Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin believes the only way Democrats can win national elections is by reconsidering their platform positions on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Those must be moderated, he said “as shocking as that may sound to party members’ ears.”

“I believe the evidence suggests that pro-life Democrats would appeal to many religious conservatives, especially Catholics, but the Democratic Party continues to chew them up and spit them out,” he said.