March 7, 2008

Religion and the Remaining Primaries

While Sen. John McCain clinched the GOP nomination with recent victories in the March 4 primaries, the Democratic contest between Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama remains deadlocked. Pew Forum Senior Fellow John Green discusses how the candidates fared among religious voters on March 4, the role that religious and unaffiliated voters could play in upcoming Democratic primaries and whether false rumors about Obama’s faith could hurt his chances for the nomination.

Featuring:
John Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

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

In this Q&A:
The religious vote in the March 4 primaries
The Democratic race ahead
McCain, Huckabee and religious voters
False rumors about Obama
Looking ahead to the general election


John Green

How did the Democratic candidates fare among religious voters on Tuesday?

Hillary Clinton did very well among white Christians in Ohio and in Texas. In the Buckeye State, the exit polls showed her winning about two-thirds of white Catholics. Clinton also did well with white Protestants in Ohio, winning two-thirds. Although the evidence is fragmentary, it appears that Clinton won both the white mainline and evangelical Protestant vote. In the Lone Star State, the exit polls showed a similar pattern, with Clinton winning white Catholics and white Protestants with about three-fifths of the vote. She also did very well with Latino Catholics in Texas.

One way to look at March 4 was that Clinton reassembled the religious elements that had been important to her coalition up through “Super Duper Tuesday” on Feb. 5. After Feb. 5, Barack Obama had been gaining among white Catholics and Protestants, especially in the Wisconsin primary. In this sense, Clinton took advantage of the religious demography of Ohio and Texas.

Obama had religious supporters as well, especially among black Protestants. There is also some evidence that he continued to poll well among younger and well-educated white Christians. Interestingly, in Ohio, Clinton also won religiously unaffiliated voters and those with low levels of worship attendance – groups that had supported Obama in previous primaries. Obama prevailed among these less-religious voters in Texas.

After Clinton’s victories Tuesday in Ohio and Texas, we have a scenario in which a highly competitive Democratic race could continue into the summer. Looking ahead to some of the key states, what role might religious voters play?

There is already a lot of emphasis on the April 22 primary in Pennsylvania, which is a state with a religious demography a lot like Ohio, with a large population of white Catholics and mainline Protestants. This fact may favor Clinton and give her a chance to replicate her success in the Buckeye State. There are also some other contests that offer a similar opportunity for the Clinton campaign: One is the Indiana primary on May 6. West Virginia (May 13) and Kentucky (May 20) have large numbers of white Protestants, especially evangelicals.

On the other hand, there are some contests that may favor Obama because of the presence of a large number of black Protestants, including Mississippi (March 11) and North Carolina (May 6).

If the contest goes to the end of the season, one of the key states may be Oregon (May 20). Oregon is known for having a very large number of unaffiliated voters, many of whom identify with the Democratic Party. It will be very interesting to see how the campaign might play out if two candidates who have been touting their religious credentials and mobilizing religious voters come to compete in a state with a large number of unaffiliated voters.

On the Republican side, John McCain clinched the nomination Tuesday, while his strongest remaining opponent, Mike Huckabee, withdrew. What challenge does McCain now face with religious voters?

On Tuesday, McCain did very well among nearly all the Republican constituency groups. But it’s interesting that even in this context, Mike Huckabee beat McCain among white evangelical Protestants. In both Texas and Ohio, he received nearly one-half of the white evangelical Protestant vote. However, McCain was close behind with a little more than two-fifths. These results show me two things: There is still some work for McCain to do to pull together the evangelical vote looking forward to the fall, and he has something to work with – nearly half the evangelical vote.

If Huckabee enthusiastically campaigns for McCain, what difference might that make?

It could really help McCain in the fall campaign. If nothing else, Huckabee has established himself as one of the most prominent evangelical political leaders in the country. There has been criticism that he continued the campaign after it became clear that McCain was likely to win, but in doing so, he got to meet with a lot of evangelicals around the country. He got a lot of votes from evangelicals in various states, even states where he lost. This may serve Huckabee very well with the future plans he may have.

With the Rev. Jerry Falwell dying last year and an aging Pat Robertson losing much of the influence he once had, we are seeing a changing of the guard, so to speak, within the Christian right. What role might Huckabee play in the future?

A lot will depend on what he does with his name recognition and the connections he has forged with evangelicals during the campaign. He could, for instance, form an organization, take on some kind of role in the Republican Party, or get a job with the media as a columnist or as a talk show host. Not only does Huckabee have good religious credentials, he also has good political credentials, partly because of the presidential campaign and partly because of his service as governor of Arkansas. He represents a different mix of issues than many leaders of the Christian right have been comfortable with in the past.

In the days preceding Tuesday’s primaries, an Associated Press photograph portraying Obama wearing a turban and a wraparound robe on a 2006 visit to Kenya was widely displayed on the Internet and distributed by email, prompting Obama’s campaign manager to characterize the effort as “shameful, offensive fear-mongering.” Obama himself felt the necessity to tell a group of Jewish leadersin Cleveland that he has never been a Muslim.Do we know if that photo has had any influence on voters?

There appears to be very little direct evidence that the particular photo had an impact on voters. However, if one puts it in the context of the campaign, it may have contributed to a larger development. One of the interesting features of this campaign has been an extensive set of false rumors alleging that Obama is a Muslim. Obama, of course, is a Christian and a member of the United Church of Christ. These rumors have been spread largely via the Internet, and they have been reinforced by some public comments, such as those made by a talk radio host who made a point of using Obama’s middle name at a rally for McCain in Ohio. And the issue has been raised indirectly by questions about Obama’s views of Louis Farrakhan.

Most politicians, Democrat and Republican, have denounced the rumors, and so has the American Muslim community. However, they could be an important factor in the campaign nonetheless, especially if national security becomes a prominent issue in the campaign. Many Americans have negative views toward Muslims, and thus an association of Obama with Islam could raise questions about his trustworthiness, as at least some Americans believe these rumors.

Can you think of any historical precedent in which a candidate has had to explain his religious affiliation like this?

None come readily to mind. There are plenty of examples of candidates who have had to explain their religion in presidential campaigns. We had a good example just this year with Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith. And, of course, if we go back a few decades, John F. Kennedy had to explain his Catholicism to many voters. But, in both cases, the controversy was about the candidate’s actual faith and how it might affect his performance in office. In this case, Obama is faced with a false story, and overcoming a rumor can be hard to do.

Looking ahead to the general election, which religious constituencies are apt to be pivotal?

If we look at the primary results to this date, we’ve seen large numbers of Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants participating in both the Democratic and the Republican primaries and caucuses. What that reveals to me is the kinds of divisions that exist within those religious communities. It may be likely that many white Roman Catholics vote Democratic in the fall and others vote Republican. And, of course, some will be in the middle and possibly could be persuaded one way or another. So it is interesting that two of the largest religious traditions in the United States, white Catholics and mainline Protestants, may turn out to be among the key swing voters in the fall campaign.

Photo Credit: Corbis