July 17, 2008

McCain’s Lead Among Evangelicals Smaller than Bush’s in ’04

Republican presidential candidate John McCain has a smaller lead among white evangelical Protestants than Republican George W. Bush had at a similar point in the 2004 campaign, even though Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has made few inroads into this key constituency. Those who are unaffiliated with a particular religion, on the other hand, are just as supportive of the Democratic candidate as they were at this point in the 2004 campaign and are substantially more supportive of Obama than they were of Democratic candidate Al Gore in June 2000. Meanwhile, there still is a major divide in candidate preference between those who regularly attend worship services and those who seldom or never attend services. These are among the key findings of a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, a sister project of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

About six-in-ten (61%) white evangelicals favor McCain while 25% support Obama. McCain’s 36-point advantage among this group is comparable to Bush’s lead in 2000 but smaller than Bush’s 43-point lead in 2004. Nonetheless, Obama has made no significant gains among this important constituency. The number of white evangelicals who say they would vote for Obama (25%) is about the same as the number who supported the Democratic presidential candidates in June 2004 (26%) and June 2000 (28%). White evangelicals are more undecided today than they were at this point in the previous two presidential elections. More than one-in-ten (12%) white evangelicals say they do not know who they would vote for if the election was held today.

The Democratic leanings of the religiously unaffiliated population have become even more pronounced. In June 2000, 46% of the unaffiliated supported Gore while 40% favored Bush – a six-point advantage for the Democratic candidate. In June 2004, however, Democrat John Kerry had a 36-point lead over Bush among the unaffiliated (65% vs. 29%). Today, more than two-thirds (67%) of the unaffiliated favor Obama while 24% support McCain – a 43-point difference. By contrast, among those who are affiliated with a particular religion, the candidates are running virtually neck and neck, with 43% favoring McCain and 45% supporting Obama.

The news is better for McCain when it comes to white, non-Hispanic Catholics. Among this group, 46% currently favor McCain while 40% express support for Obama. At a similar point in the 2004 campaign, white, non-Hispanic Catholics were nearly evenly split (48% for Bush and 47% for Kerry), and in June 2000, 48% of this group supported Bush compared with 45% who supported Gore. As is the case among white evangelicals, a substantial portion of this group (13%) is currently undecided about which candidate to vote for in the 2008 election.

McCain is also doing well among white mainline Protestants, where he enjoys a 14-point lead (53% to 39%). This is slightly smaller than Bush’s 19-point lead in June 2004 (57% to 38%). In June 2000, white mainline Protestants expressed equal support for Bush and Gore (46% for each).

When it comes to worship service attendance, registered voters who attend services at least once a week are less supportive of McCain than they were of Bush in June 2004. Less than half (46%) of those who attend services regularly say they would vote for McCain, compared with 53% who said they would vote for Bush in June 2004. Meanwhile, support for the Democratic candidates among those who regularly attend worship services has been consistent across the two election cycles; four-in-ten support Obama compared with 42% who supported Kerry in June 2004.

And as was the case in 2004, people who seldom or never attend worship services are more supportive of the Democratic candidate, as compared with those who attend services at least once a week. In June 2004, 52% of those who attend church seldom or never expressed support for Kerry, compared with 41% for Bush. This year, Obama enjoys an even larger lead of 21 points over McCain among this group (55% to 34%).
Figure 2
This analysis was written by Allison Pond, Research Associate, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, based on data from a June 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.