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Faith and Values By the Numbers

November 6, 2008, 3:17 pm | Posted by ehouser
Washington Post, On Faith
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Obama’s Victory by the Numbers

The not-very-tightly-knit community of Faith and Values pundits is unevenly divided between Narrative People and Numbers People. The latter perform vital statistical surveys about religiously based voting patterns and public opinion. Though, at their worst, they tend to speak in sentences composed of a noun, a verb and a polling result.

Narrative People, such as myself, are somewhat harder to find. We tend to look for larger cultural, historical and theological patterns. On the downside we are often bad at math, having barely made it out of trigonometry in eleventh grade. We are divas, rogue theorists and often spend way too much on clothes. And sometimes we overreach.

Tomorrow, in my valedictory, I overreach and look for the big stories of 2008. But today we defer to the Numbers People. Some of the data to be considered has been graciously collated and interpreted by the 501(c)3 group Faith in Public Life which held an informative conference call yesterday for journalists.

The Evangelicals: For months now I have been telling anyone who would listen that Obama would win this election if he could siphon away from McCain 5% or more of the Evangelicals who voted for George W. Bush in 2004. Obama did that. Sort of.

McCain scored 74-75% of the Evangelical vote, roughly 5% less than the 79% Bush received. But Obama seems only to have improved upon Kerry’s numbers by 3-4% nationally. Kerry scored 21%, Obama around 24% (though his increases were higher in crucial states like Ohio and North Carolina).

I was of the opinion that the religion-friendly Senator from Illinois was going to better Kerry’s totals by 8-10%. (In June, even conservative Evangelical commentators were lamenting that he was going to take as much as 40% of the overall Evangelical vote). In the end, however, his gains were modest, but still significant. I’ll spin this all into a narrative tomorrow.

Roman Catholics: That other quarter of the electorate–you know, the quarter that campaign strategists get less excited about because they haven’t voted in a huge unified block since 1964–provided a huge boost for the Democrats. Obama’s religious outreach team really scored big in swinging the Catholic vote back to the Democratic column. He won by 55%-44%.

As Dr. Stephen Schneck noted in yesterday’s conference call, these numbers suggest that the Christian Right’s dream of uniting Catholics and Conservative Protestants into one massive majoritarian constituency is in tatters.

The Jews: Here my predictions were right and wrong. I was adamant, correctly so, that the Jewish vote was not going to be a game changer in this election. (It wasn’t). But I was off in suggesting that Jewish support for the GOP presidential candidate would rise incrementally in 2008, as it has in every national election since 1992. Obama captured 77-78% of the Jewish vote (as opposed to the 70-73% I envisioned). This was a two percent increase over Kerry in 2004.

This figure grows more impressive when we recall that polls in July were showing Obama hovering around the unusually low mark of 62% among Jews, á la Jimmy Carter of 1980. It is too soon to explain what caused this nearly sixteen-point shift in the span of a few months (and the Numbers People will remind us that exit polls are a sort of roll of the dice) . Let me point out, however, that Obama built a truly formidable network of Jewish surrogates who canvassed hard for him among Members of the Tribe. It also seems safe to say that Sarah Palin, should she run in 2012, will need a Jewish religious imaging consultant.

The Secular Vote: In my book Thumpin’ It I argued that after their defeat in 2004 the Democrats wagered that they needed to change their image as “The Party of Secularism.” They also bet that their new pro-religion public face would not trigger a massive defection of persnickety Church-State types that comprised a reliable segment of their base.

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