by Dan Cox and Gregory Smith, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
With no clear heir apparent to President Bush, and a nominating contest that remains very much in flux, many 2008 Republican presidential candidates are vying for the support of an influential segment of the primary electorate – social-issue voters. These voters are Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters, many of whom are conservative Christians, who say social issues such as abortion and gay marriage will be very important in their presidential voting decisions.
These social-issue voters have been very visible in recent weeks. A “values voter” debate and straw poll was held in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Sept. 17. A group of influential Christian conservatives met in Salt Lake City, Utah, the last weekend in September and vowed to consider supporting a third-party candidate if the eventual Republican nominee does not represent their values. And starting Oct. 19, a number of Republican candidates will participate in a “values voter summit” in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Family Research Council, an influential conservative advocacy group. The event, billed as the largest gathering of values voters from across the nation, will feature appearances by all the Republican presidential candidates and a straw poll of attendees.
A recent Pew Research Center survey finds that for the general public, social issues continue to be overshadowed in the presidential campaign by the war in Iraq and domestic issues such as the economy and health care. Nevertheless, a large portion of Republican voters (43%) say social issues will be very important in deciding who to vote for in the 2008 presidential race.
A closer analysis of the Pew survey findings shows that these Republican social-issue voters differ in many ways from other members of the GOP coalition. For example, they are much more religious and more conservative than other Republican voters. And though more than three-quarters of Republican social-issue voters express a favorable view of former New York mayor and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, they are somewhat less likely than other Republican voters to express a positive view of him.
Who are the Republican Social-Issue Voters?
White evangelical Protestants make up 37% of all Republican voters but constitute a majority (55%) of Republican social-issue voters. Many fewer are white mainline Protestants (13%) or white non-Hispanic Catholics (14%). Seven-in-ten of these social-issue voters attend religious services at least once a week, which is nearly double the rate of other Republican and Republican-leaning voters (39%).
Compared with all Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters, Republican social-issue voters possess lower levels of education and are less affluent. Roughly half of all Republican social-issue voters say they are working class, compared with 38% among other Republican voters. More than half of social-issue voters (52%) are women, 10 points higher than among other Republican voters (42%).
Politically, social-issue voters also are strikingly different from other Republicans. More than half (54%) describe themselves as “strong Republicans,” compared with less than one third (32%) of other Republican voters. Ideologically, four-in-five social-issue voters (80%) say they are politically conservative, a level of conservatism that is more than 20 points higher than that seen among other Republican voters.
Social-Issue Voters on the Issues and the Candidates
Not surprisingly, social-issue voters are much more conservative than other Republican and Republican-leaning voters on cultural issues such as abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage. More than eight-in-ten (81%) social-issue voters oppose legalized abortion in most or all cases, with 41% saying that abortion should be illegal in all cases. Among other Republicans, by contrast, a slim majority (52%) says that abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
Similar divides are seen on stem cell research and gay marriage. Two-thirds (66%) of social-issue voters oppose stem cell research, while a narrow majority (51%) of other Republicans support it. Overall opposition to gay marriage is nearly 30 points higher among social-issue voters than among other Republicans (91% vs. 63%), and strong opposition to gay marriage is more than 40 points higher among social-issue voters than among other Republicans (70% vs. 29%).
Attitudes toward most of the current Republican presidential candidates are fairly similar among social-issue voters and other Republicans. The only exception is in attitudes toward Giuliani, where social-issue voters are somewhat less favorable than are other Republican voters (78% vs. 88%). Interestingly, however, social-issue voters view Giuliani more favorably than they view Mitt Romney and John McCain, who are generally seen as more socially conservative.
Though social-issue voters clearly are distinctive in several ways, the exact nature of their impact on the GOP nominating process is unclear. Whether they will unite behind a particular candidate, and how this might affect the Republican nomination process and ultimately the general election, remains to be seen.