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Candidate Preferences of Religious Voters Similar to 2004, But Economy a Higher Priority

A recently published national survey finds remarkable stability in the candidate preferences of major religious groups when compared with those at a similar stage in the 2004 campaign. The survey was conducted in the summer of 2008 by the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and headed by John Green, a Pew Forum senior fellow and director of the Bliss Institute. The survey also shows, however, that issue priorities among these same groups have changed since 2004; according to the survey, the economy has taken on greater importance and social issues such as abortion and gay marriage are considered less important. Green answers questions about the survey findings and what they might mean for the fall campaign.

Featuring: John Green, Director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Interviewer: Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Web Editorial, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

In this Q&A: Comparing 2008 with 2004 Catholics and other religious groups Issue priorities The Palin effect Religious outreach in the coming weeks

Question & Answer

Comparing the views of religious voters during the 2008 presidential campaign with views during the 2004 campaign, the Bliss Institute study finds what you call “remarkable stability” in candidate preferences. Is this surprising?

Given the enormous efforts of Barack Obama and other Democratic Party leaders who approached religious voters, it seemed likely to me that there would be at least some erosion of support for John McCain and for the Republican Party among evangelicals and religious conservatives. But overall there was much less change in the faith-based vote from 2004 than I had anticipated.

Pentecostal minister Leah Daughtry speaks at the Interfaith Gathering of the 2008 Democratic Convention. Democrats have stepped up their religious outreach efforts in 2008.
Pentecostal minister Leah Daughtry speaks at the InterfaithGathering of the 2008 Democratic Convention. Democrats have stepped up their religious outreach efforts in 2008.

Can you give some examples of how the Obama campaign has reached out to religious voters in ways that John Kerry’s campaign did not four years ago?

For one thing, the Obama campaign has full-time staffers who are dedicated to reaching out to religious voters and who have developed special programs for young evangelicals and young Roman Catholics. Even though our June-August Bliss Institute survey shows considerable stability between 2008 and 2004, it also shows that Sen. Obama was doing well among young people in both of these religious communities this summer. Obama has also mobilized progressive spokespeople and activists across the religious traditions to work on behalf of his candidacy. We know from the past that when a presidential campaign has advocates within religious communities – whether it is the Catholic, evangelical or mainline Protestant communities – it makes the candidate appear much more credible to those communities. Finally, Obama speaks very comfortably about his faith, in contrast with Sen. Kerry, who seemed to feel quite uncomfortable talking about religion on the campaign trail in 2004.

What levels of support are McCain and Obama receiving from major religious groups, and how does that compare with support for each party’s candidate in 2004?

One of the most interesting patterns is found in support among evangelical Protestants. These voters very strongly supported President Bush in 2004, and in our 2008 survey they’re supporting Sen. McCain at almost the same level – a little bit lower, but almost the same level. We see the same pattern we did in 2004 between the most traditional evangelicals – who are characterized by a high level of orthodox belief, who attend church very regularly and who are eager to preserve traditional religious beliefs and practices in a changing world – and the least traditional; that is to say, the most traditional are the most Republican and are very supportive of McCain, just as they supported Bush four years ago.

Given all the attention Democrats have been giving evangelicals, and given the significant political debate this election year within the evangelical community, it is really quite surprising that there is so little change. Not only are evangelicals supporting McCain at about the same level at which they supported Bush, but Obama is getting about the same level of support as Kerry got. Of course, McCain, who was raised an Episcopalian, has some claim to being an evangelical given that he now attends a Southern Baptist church in Arizona.

Mainline Protestants are very evenly divided between McCain and Obama in our 2008 survey, much as they were in 2004 and 2000. On balance, McCain does a little bit better with those groups in 2008 but not by very much. In 2008, the more traditional mainline Protestants are supporting McCain while more liberal mainline Protestants are supporting Obama. Of course Obama, having been a member of the United Church of Christ, is a mainline Protestant.

White Catholics have been called the quintessential religious swing vote. Does your survey provide any hints about how this group might vote in this election?

It is true that white Catholics have been a very important voting bloc in recent presidential elections because they divide their votes between the parties and move their support from one party to the other. In most polls, including our recent survey, we see a pretty even division among Roman Catholics, with a very slight edge for McCain. That gives both candidates strong motivation to pursue the Catholic vote.

The more liberal Catholics seem to be siding with Obama, just as they backed Kerry in 2004. But there are some differences among the traditional Catholics. This group is less Republican than they were in 2004, and that may create some difficulties for McCain. This pattern is evident in other surveys. Obama is doing a little bit better among traditional Catholics than Kerry, which is ironic because Kerry is a Roman Catholic. What is helping McCain in 2008 is stronger support from moderate or centrist Catholics. Here, McCain is running ahead of where Bush was in 2004.

What about racial and ethnic minorities?

As one might expect, Obama has made significant gains among black Protestants, who are already a heavily Democratic group; but this group is even more heavily Democratic in 2008. Obama is also doing very well with Latino Catholics. One important change is among Latino Protestants, who supported Bush in 2004 but are now supporting Obama. This change could make a difference in Western battleground states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

How are Jewish voters aligning?

In this study, Jewish voters are on balance Democratic, but they are less Democratic than they were at a comparable point in the 2004 cycle. The decline could be evidence of what is being reported in some news reports: that there may be a certain skepticism toward Obama in the Jewish community.

What are you seeing among voters who are not affiliated with a particular religion?

Religiously unaffiliated voters have tended to vote Democratic in the last few years. In 2008 we see a fairly significant increase in the support of unaffiliated voters for Obama compared with their support for Kerry in 2004. It’s important to remember, though, that the unaffiliated voters, like other groups across the religious landscape, are internally diverse.

In this study, we are able to break them up into three groups. One group is composed of self-identified atheists and agnostics, who are the most strongly Democratic and have shown the largest increase in support for the Democratic candidate since 2004. Then there are the “unaffiliated believers” – people who are not involved in organized religion but who express religious beliefs. These people are also supporting Obama, but at a much lower rate, showing very little increase compared with support for Kerry in 2004. In between the unaffiliated believers and the atheists and agnostics are seculars – people who are largely indifferent to religion. They also have shown strong support for Obama, which is an increase over support for Kerry in 2004.

There is a certain irony in these numbers. Many analysts wondered whether Obama’s religious appeals might drive away the unaffiliated portions of the Democratic coalition. But these data suggest that this has not occurred. Many of these groups are even more strongly supportive of Obama than they were of Kerry.

In a close election, what difference might this change among the religiously unaffiliated make?

The increase in the support for Obama among the religiously unaffiliated could be crucial, particularly if one adds to that continued increased support among black Protestants, Latino Catholics and Latino Protestants. Bringing those groups together in battleground states could be enough to tip those states in the Democratic direction.

What issues are religious voters focused on, and how do these issue preferences compare with those in 2004?

We found a very dramatic change in issue priorities across religious groups. All of the religious communities we examined in June-August 2008 expressed more concern with economic issues than they did in 2004. But what was surprising was the fact that the increased emphasis on economic issues didn’t greatly affect the presidential preferences of religious communities. However, it could be that economic priorities will become more important in the campaign in the fall and that they had not yet registered with many religious voters in the summer of 2008.

How are some of the historically hot-button social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, playing out?

Our June-August survey, like recent Pew Research Center surveys, shows very little change in views on abortion. But on same-sex marriage, we do notice some shifts. There has been an increase in support for civil unions and same-sex marriage. We see this shift pretty much across the board, even among many of the more traditional religious groups, including traditional evangelicals. Among more traditional mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, there’s been quite a substantial shift. These groups, on balance, still favor traditional marriage but not nearly at the level they did in 2004.

Another interesting issue is stem cell research, a question that has been debated in many religious communities. In our survey, we asked people if they agreed or disagreed with banning stem cell research on human embryos. There is much more support in 2008 for embryonic stem cell research than what we saw four years ago.

Since the last presidential election, media reports have suggested that for many religious voters, including evangelical voters, the environment increasingly is seen as an important issue and perhaps even a spiritual issue. Did your survey detect any change of attitudes?

Our survey showed that, on balance, Americans favor environmental regulation. But between 2004 and 2008, we’re seeing a little more skepticism about environmental protection, particularly among more traditional evangelical Protestants. This is interesting because there has been a debate in the evangelical community about the role of the environment, with some leaders advocating that environmental protection be included in a broader evangelical agenda. Apparently, at least among traditional evangelicals, and to some extent among other evangelicals, that argument has not registered a positive response.

It could be that deeper environmental values are indeed changing within the evangelical community, but in the present circumstances, many evangelicals are finding protection of the environment to be a lesser priority than prices or jobs.

This survey was conducted from June-August. Would you anticipate that the nomination of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential candidate and the recent crisis on Wall Street might impact people’s views?

Yes. One way to think about this survey is that it provides baseline numbers for the fall 2008 campaign. It gives us a sense of where these religious communities were before the national conventions and recent events. We will follow up the baseline survey after the election to see if there were changes in the vote of these religious groups. For example, the nomination of Sarah Palin might well have an impact on the numbers. This survey suggests that the most likely place where that impact would occur would be among evangelical Protestants and other conservative Christians who were less enthusiastically supporting McCain in the summer. In fact, a survey released on Sept. 18 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that Palin has a high favorable rating among white evangelical Protestants, who express much stronger and more positive support for McCain than they did prior to the Republican convention.

On the other hand, given the tremendous emphasis on economic issues all across the board, it may be that the recent problems with the stock market and other economic difficulties may give the Democrats and Obama an opening to appeal to many of these religious voters.

By now, the surge in the polls that McCain enjoyed after the nomination of Sarah Palin has begun to fade. Some of the most recent polls show the election coming back to where it was before the conventions, when we did our survey to establish baseline numbers for the religious groups. It may very well be that some economic problems and the positions that the candidates are taking on these economic problems are influencing members of the various religious groups.

In light of your findings, how might the campaigns reach out to religious groups in the next few weeks?

Considering the increased priority given to the economy across all religious communities, but particularly among evangelicals and other conservative Christians, it seems to me that the economy would give Obama an opportunity to pull some of those voters away from McCain.

Perhaps the most important voters are the centrists. All religious communities have large groups of people in the middle, in theological and political terms. In 2004, those groups sided with President Bush, but Obama has a chance to pull them back. He is already doing very well with key Democratic religious groups, so his challenge is to expand his support in the religious communities. He doesn’t necessarily have to win these groups, but he would benefit from improving over Kerry’s 2004 showing.

McCain’s situation is a little bit more complicated. It may very well be that with the Sarah Palin nomination he’s been able to solidify support among evangelicals and other conservative Christians on behalf of his candidacy, but he needs more than just those groups to win the election. Thus, we may see quite a battle for centrist Catholics, centrist mainline Protestants and even, perhaps, centrist evangelicals. Since the economy seems to be the issue on people’s minds, McCain would have to convince these groups of his economic proposals.

Photo credits: Voting booth: Corbis Leah Daughtry: AP

This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.

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