Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Christian Vote

Barack Obama is making a serious effort to woo religious voters, and not just those fringey lefty evangelicals Jim Wallis represents. He's going for Bush's evangelicals.
"In my own life, " he said, "it's been a journey that began decades ago on the South Side of Chicago, when, working as a community organizer, helping to build struggling neighborhoods, I let Jesus Christ into my life. I learned that my sins could be redeemed and that if I placed my trust in Christ, that he could set me on the path to eternal life when I submitted myself to his will and I dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his works."
As I listen to the pundits talk about this, they point out that Obama doesn't have to win the Christian vote, he just has to make inroads. True enough, but that's not really the whole picture. Leaving aside the issue of the electoral college, have a look at how Bush did in 2000 and 2004 among Christians. He barely lost the popular vote to Gore and beat Kerry by three percent. Overall, Bush did well both years among major religious blocs:
___________ 56%________59%
White evangelical
An initial visual inspection seems to suggest that religious voters didn't really make up the difference, never mind that that following the election pundits fingered the 22% of voters who called "moral values" their most important issue (voting 4-1 for Bush). But wait. There's some texture that makes these numbers pop. Let's start with two other numbers: 50,456,169 and 62,040,606. Those are the totals voting for Bush in '00 and '04. Kerry improved on Gore's totals too, but by 3.5 million fewer than Bush.

Bush rallied the troops, and there was something to that statistic about "values." The troops he rallied were in the churches, and they were motivated to make one last push to see if the GOP could establish the permanent ruling majority they needed to roll back abortion rights and put a stop to gay marriage. Abortion foes had been banging the drum on "partial birth abortions" in 2003 and when you look back through polling of that period, you see that it was a major issue--and two-thirds of Americans thought it should be illegal. At the time, somewhere between a quarter and a third of Americans thought abortion should be illegal. Combine that with the gay marriage--Massachusetts had legalized it in May--and you had a very intense group of activists trying to get Bush elected. And these weren't just protestant evangelicals--Catholics were also brought into this effort. Despite the fact that Kerry was a practicing Catholic, he lost voters to the Methodist Bush.

So, instead of focusing on the percentages, let's have a look at actual bodies. It is there where you see the real change.
_________23.7 mil_____33.5 mil
Catholic ___________6.2 mil______8.7 mil
White evangelical___5.7 mil_____11.1 mil
Bush did marginally worse in terms of percentages of white evangelicals in 2004, but fully 23% of the electorate were in that bloc--up from 14% in 2000.* So, among these groups, Bush picked up 17.7 million more votes in '04 than he did in '00.

So while cutting into Bush's percentages will obviously help Obama, merely reducing their desire to beat him, as they did Kerry, may more than win him the White House. How motivated are Americans now on religious issues? Way less. In 2004, a CBS/NYT poll asked respondents if they would consider voting for a candidate who didn't agree with them. 38% said no. Last month, Time asked respondents the same question, and only 23% said no. With gay marriage, 33% said they wouldn't vote for a candidate who didn't share their view in '04, but only 22% say that now.

And, even more to the point, evangelicals are less motivated by McCain, who has never been a friend to evangelicals. He has no serious outreach in the churches and absolutely no ground game to use church-goers as activists, as Bush famously (and probably illegally) did in 2004.

This is potentially a huge demographic shift, and one folks haven't been paying close enough attention to.
*Exit pollsters used slightly different terminology, perhaps confusing the issue slightly. In 2000, they used the term "white religious right," while in '04 they used "white evangelical."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Recently a friend eluded to the idea that Obama is using this faith-based speaking style as a strategy for future progress as much as an election tool. The thought is that he will call on the very "values" Bush rallied to push through the challenging programs he has in mind. Sort of a reclaiming of "Christian" values. Less of us vs. them and more golden rule stuff. My friend described it as a reformation of both the church and state. Just hope it doesn't blend the two too much, but then what could be worse than the past seven years?