The Evangelical Vote

Aug 15, 2008 9:08am

John McCain and Barack Obama’s visits with megachurch minister Rick Warren tomorrow raise key questions about evangelicals: what they think, how they vote – and whether or not Obama has a good shot at winning a substantial share of their support.

The answer to that last question: Almost certainly not. But getting there is a trip worth taking.

First the definition: In our political analyses we define “evangelicals” as evangelical white Protestants. We leave out evangelical African-Americans and white Catholics because their political identity is far less apt to be informed by religious belief. Evangelical white Protestants, to an almost unique degree in this country, mix the two.

Evangelical white Protestants account for about two in 10 Americans, with lopsided voting patterns that give them clout – as in 1994, when evangelicals helped the Republican Party gain control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Evangelicals aren’t remotely a swing group, but a core Republican one. In 2006, as the GOP lost Congress in a broad anti-Republican surge, 70 percent of white evangelicals bucked the tide and voted Republican, vs. 28 percent for Democrats. In 2004, 78 percent supported George W. Bush, vs. 21 percent for John Kerry.

Before we get to current vote preferences, consider even more basic attitudes. In our most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll evangelical white Protestants were 28 points more likely than other Americans to identify themselves as Republicans (47 vs. 19 percent) and 27 points more likely to be conservatives (57 vs. 30 percent).

Sixty percent of evangelicals say the war in Iraq was worth fighting, one of the few groups in which a majority holds that view. Fifty-four percent approve of George W. Bush’s job performance; just 23 percent of other Americans agree.

Seven in 10 call “strength and experience” in the next president more important than “a new direction and new ideas,” again among the highest of any group. Sixty-two percent say McCain shares their values; among all other Americans just 44 percent say the same. Just 36 percent say Obama shares their values. Among other Americans, it’s 61 percent.

Sixty-eight percent of evangelical white Protestants say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases; among other Americans, it's 39 percent. Seventy-one percent of evangelicals oppose gay civil unions, vs. 37 percent of other adults.

These are enormous differences.

The gap’s less pronounced, but still present, on other issues. On the environment, evangelical white Protestants are less apt than other Americans to see global warming as very serious (26 percent vs. 40 percent), to say it’s personally important to them (35 percent vs. 48 percent) or to say the government should be doing more about it (46 percent vs. 64 percent).

In some cases majorities of evangelicals have taken perhaps unexpected views. In a poll we did last year 57 percent of evangelical white Protestants supported stem-cell research, despite opposition from leaders like Warren. (Support was higher among non-evangelicals, 70 percent.) And 57 percent of evangelicals support allowing military service by homosexuals who’ve publicly declared their sexual orientation; among non-evangelicals, it’s 79 percent.

One place where evangelicals don’t look markedly different from other Americans is in their issue priorities. They’re concerned most strongly about gas prices, the Iraq war, terrorism and the economy; also – more so than others – about government ethics. Just under three in 10 rate abortion and gay civil unions as “extremely important” in their vote – more than others (17 percent), but fewer than you might think. As with other Americans, the candidates’ choices for vice president ranks last in importance to evangelicals.

McCain, famously, has had his own problems with evangelicals since he gave a speech in 2000 identifying Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance.” In that speech McCain said: “The political tactics of division and slander are not our values. They are corrupting influences on religion and politics and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party and our country.”

McCain won a third of evangelical voters in this year’s Republican primaries (second to Mike Huckabee), vs. 49 percent of non-evangelicals.

And their current vote preference? In our latest data, among registered voters, 25 percent of evangelical white Protestants support Obama, quite near Kerry’s margin in 2004. Sixty-seven percent favor McCain – one of his single best groups, albeit 11 points below Bush’s level four years ago.

While that comparison to Bush may give Obama some hope, on basic political measures the gap between evangelical white Protestants and Obama is a far wider and deeper than it is between evangelicals and McCain. Obama’s real best hope, and McCain’s greatest challenge, is probably not that an unusual number of evangelicals will vote Democratic in November – but rather that they’ll just stay home.

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