Religion and the 2004 Election

A Special Supplement to Religion in the News
Fall 2003

 THE NEW RELIGION GAP   by John Green and Mark Silk

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Table of Contents

Special Section: Introduction

The New Religion Gap

Hispanic Catholics

Non-Hispanic Catholics

Evangelicals Inside the Beltway

Evangelicals Outside the Beltway

Mainline Protestants

African American Protestants


Arab Americans: Muslims and Others

































































































































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Religion has long been a critical factor in American elections. But until recently its impact has been felt in terms of affiliation—membership in specific denominations and other religious bodies. For example, northern mainline Protestants have traditionally voted Republican, while Jews have been solidly in the Democratic camp.

In recent years, however, another aspect of religion has become politically significant: commitment, or the extent to which citizens are actively engaged in their faith. Americans who say they attend worship at least once a week are more likely to vote for Republicans, while less regular attenders—including those who claim to be nonreligious—gravitate toward the Democrats.

During the past decade, this new “religion gap” between the two parties has grown dramatically. It can be measured in various ways, but perhaps most clearly by looking at the party preferences of frequent worship attenders.

According to Voter News Service (VNS) exit polling, in the 1992 congressional election, frequent worship attenders preferred Republican to Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives by 53 to 47 percent. By the 2002 congressional election, this six percent gap had ballooned to 20 percentage points, with frequent attenders voting in favor of Republican House candidates by 60 to 40 percent.

The bulk of this shift occurred between 1994, when the gap was eight percent, and 2000, when it was 18 percent. Unfortunately, VNS did not ask a worship attendance question in either 1996 or 1998, so it is not possible to track the growth of the religion gap more precisely over this period.

How to account for that growth? One possible explanation is the 1997 Lewinsky affair that culminated in the impeachment and subsequent acquittal of President Clinton. Although the country as a whole did not favor removing Clinton from office, a sizable number of frequent worship attenders may have been sufficiently distressed by the affair to change their voting habits. 

In this regard, it is worth noting that in 1992 frequent attenders were considerably more likely to vote for Democratic House candidates than they were for Democratic presidential candidate Clinton, who at the time was dogged by charges of womanizing. In contrast to the six percent religion gap in the 1992 congressional vote, frequent attenders preferred President George H. W. Bush to Clinton by a margin of 14 percent.

However, in the 2000 presidential contest frequent attenders chose George W. Bush over Vice President Al Gore by 20 percent—just two percentage points higher than the religion gap in 2000 congressional voting and identical to the 2002 religion gap. It is conceivable that, in the late 1990s, an increasing number of frequent attenders transferred their moral disapproval of Clinton onto his party as a whole.

However we explain the religion gap, at the dawn of the 21st century it is substantially larger than the widely discussed “gender gap”—the tendency of women to vote Democratic more than Republican. In the 2000 congressional vote, where the religion gap was 18 percent, women preferred Democrats to Republicans by just 10 percent.

None of this is to say that the old politics of religious affiliation has ceased to operate. On the contrary, affiliation, which is closely tied to ethnic and racial identity, continues to have profound effects on American voting patterns. But these effects are now being shaped, within many religious voting blocs, by a new politics of commitment. Only by taking both aspects of religion into account can we assess the full impact of religion on electoral politics.

 In order to suggest how religion may matter in 2004, we first need to look more closely at how religion has figured in the past two national elections. The 2000 and 2002 VNS polls, which rely on interviews with thousands of respondents, asked three questions about religion: membership in the “Religious Right”; general religious affiliation (Protestant, Catholic, Other Christian, Jew, Something else, and none); and frequency of worship attendance. The responses enable us to differentiate 13 major religious categories based on affiliation and commitment. [1] They are listed, according to the degree of support for the Republican Party, in Tables 1 and 2.

To be sure, these are crude groupings that mask important denominational identities. The great bulk of those in the “Religious Right” category are white evangelical Protestants, including members of the Southern Baptist Convention, Pentecostal, and Holiness churches. The “Frequent Attending White Protestants” category covers many of these evangelicals as well as more committed members of mainline Protestant churches.

 “Other White Christians” is a polyglot category that includes some evangelicals belonging to nondenominational megachurches as well as Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Eastern Orthodox. Most of these denominations tend to have relatively high levels of religious commitment, and like the frequent attending white Protestants tend to vote Republican.

As indicated in Table 1, George W. Bush won all but one of the white Christian groups in 2000. Not surprisingly, he did exceptionally well with the frequent attending white religious right (87 percent), which now represents the heart of the Republican coalition. With non-Catholic Christians, Bush’s performance ranged from 61 percent of frequent attending white Protestants to 51 percent of less attending white Protestants.

Frequent attending white Catholics were one of his strongest sources of support, giving him 57 percent of their vote compared to 40 percent for Gore. Among white Christians, only the less attending Catholics preferred Gore to Bush, by a margin of four percent. All in all, differences in commitment were highly significant throughout the “Christian” categories.

For his part, Gore did especially well among minority faiths, drawing an astounding 91 percent of the black Protestant vote, 78 percent of the Jewish vote, and 67 percent of the Latino Catholic vote. Among Latino Protestants, he eked out a two percent margin over Bush. In contrast to whites, it appears that frequency of worship attendance has little effect on the voting behavior of minorities, and especially of African Americans.

The 2000 congressional vote, in which Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives by a small margin and ended up tied for control of the Senate, broke down along much the same lines as the presidential vote, with a small but telling religious variation. All the frequent attending Christian groups voted slightly less for GOP congressional candidates than they did for Bush, while all the less attending Christian groups did just the opposite. Meanwhile, Jews and seculars were significantly more likely to vote Republican for Congress than for President. It seems likely that candidate Bush’s religiosity gained him some support among committed Christians while losing him votes elsewhere.

The 2002 polls tell much the same story, but with some intriguing variations.[2] In a midterm election in which the president’s party, uncharacteristically, picked up seats in both the House and Senate, non-Catholic Christians and Jews moved towards the Republicans, while Catholics of every kind shifted in a Democratic direction. Notably, Latino Protestants, who had shown a small preference for congressional Democrats in 2000, moved decisively into the Republican camp in 2002, voting GOP by a margin of 14 percent. And while Jews continued to be a solid Democratic constituency, they increased their vote for Republican House candidates from 27 to 35 percent.

On the other side, frequent attending white Catholics lowered their margin of preference for Republicans from 14 to 8 percent, while Latino Catholics increased their pro-Democratic margin by five percent. Less attending white Catholics swung from preferring Republicans by one percentage point in 2000 to preferring Democrats by nine percent in 2002.

How to make sense of these shifts? Robust support for Israel and the war in Iraq doubtless helped round up more Jewish votes than usual for the GOP. Otherwise, the faith-based programs and rhetoric emanating from Congress and the White House seem to have appealed largely to Protestants and “other” Christians—but not to Catholics. Why?

The Republican “preferential option for the well-to-do” embodied in tax policy is certainly at odds with Catholic social teachings, and in addition, many Catholics are leery of the evangelical Protestant style increasingly associated with Republicanism. Such concerns may well have blunted the Republican appeal on moral issues like abortion or school vouchers.

 It is by looking at these particular groups that we can understand why the overall “religion gap” increased by only two percent during the first two years of the very religiously focused Bush administration. The Republican gains among frequent attending white Protestants and several minority Christian faiths were largely offset by the Democratic shift of Hispanic and frequent attending non-Hispanic Catholics.

Of course, one major difference between the 2002 and 2000 elections is turnout: Far more people in every religious group vote in presidential elections. Unfortunately, exit polls are of little help in assessing turnout, since nonvoters are not included. In fact, turnout is one of the most difficult things to measure accurately with any kind of survey.

However, the available evidence does suggest enormous variation in turnout by these religious groups. Frequent attending white Protestants and Catholics, as well as Jews, tend to have the highest turnout. Latino Catholics, less attending white Protestants, and Catholics tend to have the lowest turnout. Seculars, black Protestants, and the white religious right fall somewhere in between.

Moreover, turnout can vary on a regional basis. We know, for example, that in 2002 frequent attending white Protestants turned out in significantly higher numbers in the South than in other regions of the country—and that this fueled impressive GOP victories south of the Mason-Dixon line (see John Green, “The Undetected Tide,” Religion in the News, Spring 2003.

What does all this mean for the 2004 election? The basic patterns of affiliation and commitment are unlikely to change dramatically. The Republican alliance of white Protestants and committed other Christians will once again face off against the Democratic coalition of minority faiths and the less committed. The religion gap will probably not grow much, if at all; almost certainly it will remain large.

The electorate is so closely divided that even modest changes in the votes and turnout of key constituencies could make a difference, and neither party can take religious voting blocs of granted.

For Bush and the Republicans, the white religious right is a critical constituency, and a high level of support must be maintained by action on moral issues. But the GOP must also maximize support from other elements of its alliance, which includes groups that may be turned off by moral issue appeals. Frequent attending white Catholics are very important to the Republican cause, and here the 2002 congressional vote offers some reason for concern. At the same time, there may be an opening for the GOP to increase its support among Latino Protestants and Jews.

What about the Democrats and whoever their presidential candidate may be? Job One is to maintain high support among the minority faiths: black Protestants, Latino Catholics, and Seculars. The Democrats will need to recover their standing among Jews and to maximize support from less attending Catholics and Protestants so as to neutralize the religion gap. Anything they could do to make gains among regular worship attenders would of course be a bonus. Expect a fierce contest for Catholics and Latinos in 2004.

Accomplishing any of these partisan goals requires politicians to know how religious communities are connected to politics. In general terms, the politics of affiliation and commitment revolve around values, cues, and contacts.

Religious communities are characterized by distinctive values, and, depending on the issues under consideration, these can be a basis for choosing between candidates and parties. They are also places where religion and politics are regularly discussed—by clergy, lay leaders, and congregants themselves—and such discussion gives cues for political choices.

Politicians target religious communities for mobilization based on the patterns of values and cues; any such contacts can influence political choices as well. In general, the more committed members of a religious community tend to embrace the group’s distinctive values more fully, are more aware of the available cues, are exposed to more political contacts, and thus are likely to make different choices than their less committed co-religionists.

In short, while the religion gap provides a critical index of recent American voting behavior, the electoral impact of religion is not one story but many different stories.

What issues push buttons for the various kinds of Protestants, Catholics, and non-Christians? Which cues are being given in churches, synagogues, and mosques? What contacts are reaching the frequent worshipers and missing the infrequent? Who is doing what to mobilize whom?

The answers in 2004 remain to be seen—and reported.



TABLE 1: Religion and 2000 Presidential Vote

                                                                     Bush    Gore    Others

Frequent attending white “religious right”           87%     11        2
Frequent attending white Protestants                 61%     37        2
Frequent attending white Catholics                    57%     40        3
Other white Christians                                       57%     40        3
Less attending “religious right”                           56%     38        6
Less attending white Protestants                        51%     47        2
ENTIRE ELECTORATE                              48%     48        4
Latino Protestants                                             48%     50        3
Less attending white Catholics                           46%     50        5
Other Non-Christians                                       36%     54        10
Latino Catholics                                                30%     67        3         
Secular                                                             27%     64        9
Jews                                                                 20%     78        2
Black Protestants                                              9%       91        1


TABLE 2: Religion and Congressional Vote

                                                          2002                                         2000   

                                      Rep            Dem       Othr               Rep         Dem    Othr

Frequent attending                             82%            16              2                  85%          14            1
white ”religious right” 

Frequent attending                             67%            31              2                   60%           37           3
white Protestants 

Less attending                                     66%            33               1                   61%           36            4
white  “religious right”  

Other white Christians                        62%            35               3                   54%            42           4

Latino Protestants                               56%            42               2                    48%           50           2

Less attending white Protestants      55%           43               2                    54%            44           2

Frequent attending white Catholics   53%           45              2                    56%            42           1

ENTIRE ELECTORATE                       51%        46             3                   49%         48            3

Less attending white Catholics           44%          53              3                      49%           48          3

Other Non-Christians                            36%          56              8                      35%          61           4

Secular                                                     33%          63              4                      32%           63           5

Latino Catholics                                     28%          71               *                     30%           67           3

Jews                                                         35%          62               3                      27%           72           1

Black Protestants                                  10%          89               1                       12%           88           *

 * less than one percent

[1] The 2002 VNS exit poll had 17,872 cases over all, of which 8,188 were asked the religion questions; the 2000 VNS exit poll had 13,259 cases overall, and the religion items were available for 9,246 cases.  In both surveys, the margin of error was less than two percent. Details of coding and estimations are available from John Green at

[2] Because of technical problems, the 2002 VNS polls were not released until September 2003.