Are white evangelicals losing faith in the Republican Party?
The huge voting bloc, which helped elect President Bush twice and had been swinging more heavily Republican, seems to have become disenchanted with the GOP after the Mark Foley scandal and the high-profile resignations of several Republican congressmen.
Almost a third of white evangelicals voted for Democrats in today's election, according to early exit polls reported by The Associated Press. Most of them cited corruption as an important factor in their decision.
That's a change from the 2004 presidential election when 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for Bush and 21 percent voted for Kerry. That was a recent peak in evangelical attachment to Republicans.
In the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, evangelicals constituted 23 percent of the electorate.
Today's early numbers seem to show that Democrats have been able to recapture some of that huge block.
In the 2002 midterm elections, almost 68 percent of evangelicals favored Republican candidates. In 2000, 68 percent voted for Bush and 30 percent for Gore.
Over the last 20 years, white evangelicals have become much more attached to the GOP.
Back in 1987, they split their partisan attachments almost evenly, with 34 percent identifying as Republicans and 29 percent as Democrats, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center.
By 2004, Republicans outnumbered Democrats within the group by more than 2-1 (48 percent to 23 percent) and 74 percent of evangelicals had a favorable opinion of the GOP.
By last fall, after Hurricane Katrina, that number had dropped to 54 percent. Although that favorability index rose slightly by the beginning of 2006, it had declined again to 54 percent in July, according to the Pew surveys.
In recent months, evangelical voters have become increasingly disenchanted with the behavior of Republican politicians, including Foley, who resigned in disgrace after ABC News revealed his lewd Internet messages to congressional pages.
A House committee is investigating whether some members of the Republican leadership, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, knew about Foley's behavior for months in advance of the revelations.
Last week, one prominent evangelical leader, Focus on the Family's James Dobson, was so concerned about disillusionment with the party that he sounded a warning call on his national radio broadcast to 1.5 million listeners.
"To all of those values voters out there, don't you dare sit this one out," Dobson said. "You have an obligation to come and participate in this great representative form of government. … If we do, I think the results will take care of themselves."