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.
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
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
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.
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?
Pentecostal minister Leah Daughtry speaks at the Interfaith
Gathering of the 2008 Democratic Convention. Democrats have
stepped up their religious outreach efforts in 2008.
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
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
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
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.
Voting booth: Corbis
Leah Daughtry: AP
This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.