by John C. Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics
For the presidential candidates and the pundits who write about them, one concern in the 2008 campaign is the "religion gap" - shorthand for the religious differences between Republican and Democratic voters. An analysis of national exit polls from 2004 shows there is not one but two religion gaps - one based on religious affiliation and the other based on frequency of attendance at worship services. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center provide evidence that both of these religion gaps are at work as the public evaluates the candidates for the 2008 presidential race. The surveys also indicate that the Democrats may be doing better than they did in 2004 among some religious groups.
Candidates have long recognized religious affiliation as a significant factor in American elections. In the 1940s, for example, Catholics tended to vote Democratic and mainline Protestants tended to vote Republican. A similar gap now exists between white evangelical Protestants, who are strongly Republican, and black Protestants, who are strongly Democratic.
In the last three decades, however, a second religion gap has appeared, this one based on frequency of attendance at worship services. Voters who report attending religious services at least once a week - regardless of religious affiliation - tend to vote more Republican. Those who say they attend religious services less often (termed "less observant" for the purpose of this analysis) tend to vote more Democratic.
The Religion Gaps in 2004
In the 2004 presidential election, exit polling by the National Election Pool found that religious affiliation and frequency of attendance at worship services had a larger impact than many other, better-known factors, including the "gender gap" between men and women and the "class gap" between the most and least affluent voters.
The difference in the votes of evangelical Protestants and black Protestants is an example of the affiliation gap; 79% of evangelical Protestants voted for President Bush, compared with 14% of black Protestants - a difference of 65 percentage points. (See the note below for an explanation of the definitions used in this analysis for these and other religious groups.) Members of some religious groups, including mainline Protestants, divided their votes more equally between Bush and his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry. But large differences separated mainline Protestants from evangelical Protestants in their support for Bush (a 25-percentage-point gap) and mainline Protestants from black Protestants in their support for Kerry (a 40-point gap).
The religion gap based on attendance, although not as stark as the affiliation gap, is also significant. Within all the major religious traditions surveyed, people who attended religious services at least once a week voted more Republican than did their less-observant counterparts within the same religious affiliation.
Among evangelical Protestants, for example, Bush received support from 82% of those who attended services at least weekly, compared with support from 72% of those who attended services less frequently (a gap of 10 percentage points). Comparing evangelical Protestants' support for Bush with that for Kerry, Bush held a 44-point advantage over Kerry among evangelical Protestants who attended services less than weekly. However, the advantage for Bush increased to 64 points among evangelical Protestants who attended services at least weekly.
The pattern also held true within religious traditions that generally supported Kerry. Among black Protestants, Kerry received greater support from those who attended services less than once a week than from those who attended services weekly or more often (92% vs. 83%, a nine-percentage-point gap). Comparing black Protestants' support for Kerry with that for Bush, Kerry held an 84-point advantage among those who attended services less than weekly. However, the advantage decreased to 66 points among black Protestants who attended services at least once a week.
The gap based on frequency of attendance at worship services also is apparent even within religious traditions that split their votes somewhat more equally between the two candidates. For example, among non-Latino Catholics, Bush received much greater support than did Kerry from those who attended services at least weekly (a 24-point gap), while Bush's support among those who attended services less than once a week was not as overwhelming (a six-point gap).
No Religious Majority at the Ballot Box
An analysis of religion-based voting patterns shows that no simple "religious majority" exists in the American electorate. In the 2004 presidential election, for example, weekly attending evangelical Protestants and less-observant mainline Protestants accounted for the largest portions of the popular vote (each at 14%), and most religious constituencies accounted for less than 10%. As a result, presidential campaigns are forced to assemble broad coalitions encompassing many religious communities, and the two religion gaps help define the composition of these coalitions.
In 2004 the most important group in Bush's re-election coalition was evangelical Protestants, who accounted for a third of his total votes on Election Day. He also obtained modest but crucial support from members of other religious groups, such as the unaffiliated, who on balance voted Democratic.
Kerry drew strong support from religiously unaffiliated voters (about one-in-five of his total votes) and a diverse array of other groups, including black Protestants and non-Latino Catholics. He also won some votes from largely Republican-leaning groups, including evangelical Protestants.
What about 2008?
There is some preliminary evidence that the affiliation gap again is at work in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election.
A January 2007 Pew survey, for example, asked people if they would most like to vote for a conservative Republican candidate, a moderate Republican candidate, a moderate Democratic candidate or a liberal Democratic candidate for president in 2008. As in 2004, religious affiliation appears to be an important factor in the responses: Evangelical Protestants were the most likely to back a Republican presidential candidate. Conversely, the lowest level of support for a Republican came from unaffiliated voters and a composite of religious groups - including black Protestants - that were too small to break out individually in the Pew survey. Falling in between were mainline Protestants and non-Latino Catholics; their support for a Republican was lower than that of evangelical Protestants but higher than that of the unaffiliated.
The gap based on frequency of attendance at worship services also may be at work. Regardless of affiliation, weekly attenders were more likely to back a Republican candidate than were the less observant. The survey also showed, however, that many of the constituencies that backed Bush in 2004, including less-observant evangelical Protestants, are more likely to support a Democratic candidate in 2008. In addition, the Democrats are attracting even stronger support from religious constituencies that backed Kerry in 2004. For example, 38% of weekly attending non-Latino Catholics voted for Kerry in 2004, but 52% say they would "like to vote" for a Democrat in 2008.
These early preferences must be viewed with caution, however. It is possible, for instance, that the survey results may simply reflect President Bush's low popularity at the time the survey was conducted. Moreover, the survey questions did not mention specific candidates for either party.
But if the patterns in these early surveys were to translate into votes in the 2008 general election, the Democrats would do better among some groups of religious voters than in 2004. Whichever candidate prevails, the religion gaps are likely to help explain the outcome.
For a more detailed analysis of the two religion gaps, seeThe Faith Factor, How Religion Influences American Elections, by John C. Green (2007).
Note: In the 2004 National Election Pool exit poll, respondents were asked with which of eight religious traditions they identified: Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Other Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Something Else or None. Respondents were also asked additional demographic questions. The definitions of the religious categories used in this analysis of the 2004 exit poll data are as follows:
• "Evangelical Protestants" refers to respondents who described themselves as white, born-again and Protestant as well as respondents who described themselves as white, born-again and Other Christian.
• "Mainline Protestants" refers to respondents who described themselves as white, non-born-again and Protestant.
• "Black Protestants" refers to respondents who described themselves as black and Protestant as well as respondents who described themselves as black and Other Christian.
• "Latino Protestants" refers to respondents who described themselves as Hispanic and Protestant as well as respondents who described themselves as Hispanic and Other Christian.
• "Non-Latino Catholics" refers to respondents who described themselves as Catholic but not Hispanic.
• "Latino Catholics" refers to respondents who described themselves as Hispanic and Catholic.
• "Other Christians" refers to respondents who described themselves as Mormon as well as respondents who described themselves as white, non-born-again and Other Christian.
• "Jews" refers to respondents who described themselves as Jewish.
• "Other Faiths" refers to respondents who described themselves as Muslim as well as respondents who reported that they regularly attend worship services and described their religious affiliation as "Something Else."
• "Unaffiliated" refers to respondents who claimed no religious affiliation as well as infrequent worship service attenders who described their religious affiliation as "Something Else."