Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama Gains With Religious Voters


In building a winning coalition of religious voters, Barack Obama cut into the so-called God gap that puts frequent worshippers in the Republican column, won Catholics, made inroads with younger evangelicals, and racked up huge numbers with minorities and people with no religious affiliation.

By some measures, the faith-based equivalent of the red and blue map didn't change that much: Large voting blocs like white Catholics and evangelical Protestants remained in the Republican camp, for example.

The early indications from exit polls don't suggest a fundamental reshaping of religion's role in electing presidents, but they do show Obama made progress on important fronts that hold promise for future Democratic religious coalitions that cross racial lines, analysts said.

"It really doesn't look to me like a realignment," said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Rather, he said, Obama made religion work for him in a way other Democrats haven't.

The economy, meanwhile, dominated voters' priorities across religious lines, blunting the impact of issues like abortion and gay marriage that historically help move religious votes.

The Obama campaign made a strong pitch for religious voters, building grassroots support through "faith house parties" where religion and the candidates were discussed, putting Catholic and evangelical surrogates on the stump, and holding faith caucus meetings at the Democratic convention in August.

Yet when it came down to the final Sunday, the campaign turned to traditional Democratic religious turf: African-American churches, where a letter from the candidate was read urging voter participation.

Exit polls showed Obama winning big with black Protestants (94 percent backed him), Hispanic Catholics (72 percent), and Hispanic Protestants and other Christians (67 percent). Obama won the election handily even though white Catholics and white Protestants backed Republican John McCain.

"This is a coalition that includes white Christians," Green said of Obama's faith-based bloc. "It's just white Christians aren't the senior partners in this coalition."

On one key measure that has hurt Democrats before _ the God or religion gap _ Obama made up ground. He won 43 percent of weekly churchgoers to McCain's 55 percent. Not great, but an improvement over John Kerry taking 39 percent of that vote to George Bush's 61 percent.

Among voters who attend church more than once a week, Obama narrowed a 29-point Republican advantage in 2004 (64 percent to 35 percent) to a 12-point Republican advantage edge (55 percent to 43 percent).

White evangelicals remain a key component of the Republican coalition. In one indicator of turnout, exit polls show they were 23 percent of the electorate, 3 percent higher than in 2004.

On Tuesday, McCain carried white evangelicals 74 percent to 24 percent _ a dominating performance, but short of George Bush's 79 percent to 21 percent margin over John Kerry in 2004. McCain also fell short of Bush's numbers on white evangelicals in swing states like Colorado, where he performed 15 points worse than Bush, and Ohio, where he fell 6 points below Bush numbers.

Young evangelicals were part of the reason, exit polls show. Nationally, 32 percent of white evangelicals between 18 and 29 favored Obama _ nine to 10 points better than Obama did with white evangelicals between 30 and 64.

The Obama campaign never had designs on carving out a big chunk of the white evangelical vote. But because it's such a large bloc, a little can make a difference _ and the target was young evangelicals.

If young evangelicals are more open to Democrats, that carries implications for the Republican Party, the direction of the evangelical Christian movement and Democratic politics.

"If you put younger white evangelicals together with black evangelicals, Hispanic evangelicals, progressive evangelicals and others who are not evangelical, I think there is perhaps a shift in the religious landscape and the political landscape that may be a long-term shift," said David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta.

Conservative evangelicals, meanwhile, found something positive in the success in Arizona, Florida and California of constitutional amendments that define marriage as between one man and one woman.

"When the values and what's at stake is clear, the voters get it every time," said Carrie Gordon Earl, senior director of public policy for Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family. "With Obama, there was a concerted effort to court evangelicals by misrepresenting, in our view, Obama's positions."

Again, Catholics proved to be a swing vote. Obama won the Catholic vote 54 percent to 45 percent, four years after Bush won Catholics 52 to 47 percent. Obama lost the white Catholic vote 52 percent to 47 percent, but that was still four points better than Kerry's showing. The candidates were evenly split among Catholics who go to Mass weekly.

A number of U.S. Catholic bishops emphasized abortion as a paramount voting issue this year, including Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, who strongly criticized Obama's abortion rights positions. In an e-mail Wednesday, Chaput said the attractiveness of Obama as a candidate, the primacy of the economy as an issue and the Democrats' "explicitly religion-friendly public relations" played a role in the Catholic result.

He also said: "The more serious Catholics are about their faith _ in other words, where they invest their time, convictions and behavior _ the less likely they were to vote for Sen. Obama." Chaput said Obama's strong showing among Latino Catholics doesn't make them less serious about their faith, but means other factors are at work, including the experience of being a minority.

Obama's Catholic showing was greeted differently on the Catholic left. Stephen Schneck, director of the Life Cycle Institute at the Catholic University of America, said Obama's emphasis on service, the communal good, pragmatic solutions and "raising the quality of life for the least among us" were all Catholic draws.

One of the Democrats' largest gains came among voters unaffiliated with any religion. Obama won that demographic 75 percent to 23 percent, an eight-point swing from Kerry's performance in 2004.

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