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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Barack Obama won big among religious voters on Tuesday, chalking up gains over John Kerry’s share of the vote in major religious voting blocs: black Protestants, Hispanic Protestants and Catholics, Jews, and even among white evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics. So that must mean that the Democratic Party’s religious outreach worked, right?
Let me humbly offer an Obama-esque rebuttal: We are not a nation of Christians and a few Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, non-theist, and other miscellaneous stragglers. We are one nation of diverse believers and non-believers, and Obama’s victory shows that a great many Americans of different faith traditions, and no faith at all, agree on a whole hell of a lot, without divine intervention.
The results of this historic election repudiate narrowly crafted outreach to voters based on their perceived religious preferences. They disprove the idea that voters are comforted by hearing a candidate or his surrogate explain how his policy positions line up with the Bible. They show that Christians across the country have different answers to the question of What Would Jesus Do. And they prove that whether a presidential candidate aligns with a voter’s religious viewpoint should be answered by the voter herself — not by grandstanding mega-church pastors or surrogates with political agendas of their own.
In the last weeks of the campaign, when Obama solidified his majority, he did it without the God talk and with the let’s-roll-up-our-sleeves-and-right-our-beloved-country’s-course-again talk. It was a prayer of sorts, the kind that Americans of all religious and nonreligious stripes want answered.
The real headline is not how religious voters propelled Obama into office but how alliances between religious groups and progressives can be used to advance a progressive agenda on issues on which they may agree, such as the economy, the environment, or international human rights.
According to exit-polling data analyzed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Obama improved his performance among every religious group over John Kerry’s performance in 2004, although his gains among white evangelicals (a 3 percent to 5 percent increase, depending on how you measure it) and white Catholics (a 4 percent gain) were far more modest, and McCain maintained a majority of both those groups and white mainline Protestants. (McCain won white evangelicals 74 percent to 24 percent; white mainline Protestants 65 percent to 34 percent, and white Catholics 52 percent to 47 percent.)
But among nonwhite Christians, a growing part of the electorate, Obama’s increases were “dramatic,” said Pew senior fellow John Green. He also noted that the important story of Obama’s win among religious voters was “what happened to minority Christians,” including black Protestants (Obama got 95 percent of the black vote, up from 88 percent for Kerry), Latinos, most of whom are Christian (66 percent, up from 53 percent for Kerry), and Asians (61 percent, up from 56 percent for Kerry).
Obama also increased his share of voters unaffiliated with any religion by 8 percentage points (75 percent of them voted for Obama, while 67 percent had voted for Kerry), and garnered 79 percent of the Jewish vote (which looked more like Gore’s 78 percent than Kerry’s 74 percent), despite a relentless campaign of vicious smears, rumors and insinuations targeted at that community and claims that Obama was anti-Israel and a friend of terrorists.
Robert P. Jones, president of Public Religion Research, a consulting firm to organizations like Faith in Public Life, which has promoted the broader, center-left agenda of religious voters beyond abortion and gay marriage, and Third Way, which has tried to defuse culture-war issues like abortion by formulating an abortion-reduction strategy, touted Obama’s reduction of the “God gap” in the polling results. Jones noted Obama’s slashing of Bush’s 29-point advantage among voters who attend church more than once a week, narrowing it to a 12-point advantage for McCain.
Leading evangelical centrists say that the religious right still maintains a hold on a small slice of the electorate but that a center-left religious coalition will have access to a responsive Obama administration that will work with them on solving economic, health-care, energy, environmental, and foreign-policy issues. Richard Cizik, the National Association of Evangelicals’ point man in Washington, extolled Obama’s ability to understand and articulate complex moral issues and expressed optimism that Obama wants government to partner with faith groups in addressing such broader moral concerns.
Even though Obama was not successful nationally in breaking the Republican hold on white evangelicals, he did make modest gains on Kerry’s percentages in North Carolina, Ohio, and Colorado. Although many evangelicals say they are embracing an agenda beyond the culture wars, Obama’s position on abortion rights is still a deal breaker for many white evangelicals who were considering voting for him, said David Gushee, a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, president of Evangelicals for Human Rights, and a prominent critic of the Bush administration’s torture policy. Gushee emphasized how impressed he was by the sophistication of Obama’s religious outreach, noting that it outpaced those of both John McCain and Hillary Clinton. But, Gushee noted, for rank-and-file evangelicals who did not have that kind of contact with Obama, his “overall approach to the campaign” and ability to discuss moral issues such as in his speech on race in March, was more critical than his appearances at forums like Saddleback Church and Messiah College, specifically directed at religious voters.
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In a country where religion plays a big role in politics, U.S. Democrats have made some big gains with voters of faith.
A number of exit polls have shown that President-elect Barack Obama narrowed the “God gap” that existed when President George W. Bush, a Republican, defeated Democratic challenger John Kerry in 2004.
According to Faith in Public Life, a non-partisan resource center, and Public Religion Research, Obama increased the Democratic share of the tally among all groups categorized by how often they attend church.
The groups noted that he made his biggest gains among voters who attend church more than once a week, “narrowing a 29-point Republican advantage (64 percent – 35 percent) to a 12-point Republican advantage (55 percent – 43 percent). This represents an 8-point increase among a strongly Republican group.”
Other highlights it noted included:
- Obama won monthly attenders 53 percent to 46 percent, while Kerry lost them 49 percent to 51 percent, a 4-point pickup.
- Obama beat Republican rival John McCain soundly among Catholics (55 percent to 44 percent), performing better than Kerry in 2004 and Democrat Al Gore in 2000.
- Among white Catholics, Obama narrowed the Republican advantage from Bush’s 13-
point advantage (56 percent to 43 percent), with McCain holding only a 5-point advantage (52 percent to 47 percent).
- White evangelical Protestants remained the most reliable base for the Republican Party with McCain beating Obama among them 75 percent to 24 percent — falling only slightly short of Bush’s standing with them in 2004. This finding was similar to other exit polls such as CNN’s.
All of this is interesting stuff and highlights, among other things, Obama’s success in wooing religious voters through an outreach program and his own overt gestures of faith.
His small inroads with evangelical voters show that some in this diversifying movement hope he will support their efforts as they broaden their biblical agenda to include the fight against climate change.
His gains elsewhere, such as among Catholics, probably stem from many factors including voter concerns about the economy, which overshadowed almost everything else in the last few weeks of the election.
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Exit poll analysis memo available here.
Audio recording of press conference available here.
The 2008 exit polls reveal a substantial narrowing of the so-called â€œGod Gapâ€ and significant shifts among evangelical and Catholic voters from 2004. Today, religious and polling experts discussed significant changes in religious voting patterns in a conference call with reporters.
â€œOne thing is clear: 2008 was a dramatically different year for religion and politics than 2004,â€ said Katie Paris, Director of Communications Strategy at Faith in Public Life. â€œEvangelicals are not monolithic, Catholics are indeed swing voters, and the religious voices on the political scene are no longer just a few.â€
â€œThis is a religious rebalancing election,â€ said Dr. Robert Jones, president of Public Religion Research, who spearheaded the data analysis. â€œWe see Roman Catholics being the very true swing voters — going for Gore, then Bush, and now solidly for Barack Obama, some diversification in the white evangelical vote, and Obama making inroads among all religious attendance groups, with the largest increase among the more than weekly attenders.â€
Here are key findings from the Faith in Public Life and Public Religion Research analysis of the exit polls (full analysis memo is available online).
â€¢ Obama increased his share among all worship service attendance groups, but he made his greatest gains among voters who attend church more than once per week, narrowing a 29-point GOP advantage in 2004 to a 12-point GOP advantage in 2008.
â€¢ Obama won monthly attenders 53- 46, while Kerry lost them 49-51, a 4-point pickup.
â€¢ Obama beat McCain soundly among Catholics (55- 44), performing better than Kerry in 2004 and Gore in 2000.
â€¢ Among white Catholics, Obama narrowed the Republican advantage from Bushâ€™s 13-point advantage to just 5 points.
â€¢ White evangelicals turned out solidly (23% of the vote) and strongly supported McCain (75- 24), but evangelical support for McCain was 5 points lower than support for Bush (79%) in 2004.
â€¢ In a number of states (including OH, MO, MI, IN, and NC), white evangelical turnout increased over 2004, but this increase did not favor McCain.
Evangelical and Catholic leaders on the conference call provided a close-up look at how faith and values affected the outcome of the election, including how the broadening faith agenda shaped religious voting behaviors.
â€œWe need to read concern for the economy, as well as health care, the Iraq War, and other issues as having values dimensions,â€ Dr. David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University said, noting that the exits polls found that the economy was the top issue of concern for all voters. â€œThe broadening of the agenda is partly about [it being] immoral that so many live in poverty, go bankrupt because of lack of healthcareâ€¦or that we have been involved in war almost endlessly and violated human rightsâ€¦More and more evangelicals are seeing that this is worth voting for and praying about. Abortion and gay marriage arenâ€™t the only relevant issues.â€ As Dr. Steve Schneck, director of the Life Cycle Institute at the Catholic University of America, noted, â€œThe economy is itself a moral and religious issue.â€
The leaders also spoke about how many people of faith are approaching politics differently today.
â€œThe religious right has practiced a zero-sum game where somebody else has to lose for us to win,â€ said Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals. â€œOur strategy is a common good approach that says we are all in this together, whether itâ€™s the air we breathe or the food we eat. Weâ€™re all in this together. Thatâ€™s our strategy, and we have learned to work with those with whom we disagree.â€
â€œThere are cracks occurring in the religious right,â€ Rev. Cizik added. â€œThe cracks occur because millions of evangelicals are concerned about hyperbolic rhetoric and the partisan attitude that pervades their public speech.â€ Dr. Schneck said: â€œThereâ€™s always been a hope on the part of the religious right to somehow awaken mainstream Roman Catholics in the United States to join their cause. I think this election suggests that the limits for that alliance have been reached as well.â€
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It took a generation, but the Democratic Party finally got right with God.
Given the power of the poll in contemporary American politics, you would think someone would have convinced the Democrats years ago that, in a country where more than nine out of 10 voters believe in God, it doesn’t make much sense to leave the Almighty to the other guys. But one of the distinguishing marks of the Democrats over the past quarter-century has been their determination either to avoid uttering God’s name or to stammer while doing so. When it came to keywords such as “Bible” and “family” and “values,” Republicans had that territory pretty much to themselves.
But that was then. Now, even Democrats live in a world where the old wall between private faith and public policy lies in ruins. Ever since Barack Obama, then a little-known state senator from Illinois, stood up at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 and affirmed that blue staters also “worship an awesome God,” the Democratic Party has been invoking divinity while contending that poverty and global warming and war and human rights are moral issues, too. Republicans are no longer alone in testifying to their personal religious convictions. Yes, Mike Huckabee invoked loaves and fishesand David and Goliath in an effort to convince his followers that even in U.S. politics, miracles can happen and underdogs can win. But Hillary Clinton played that game, too, repeatedly yoking her views on immigration policy to the New Testament’s Good Samaritan story.
Over the past two years, we’ve heard much about the Mormonism of Mitt Romney, the conservative Catholicism of Sam Brownback and the spiritual-warrior Pentecostalism of Sarah Palin. John McCain, who in 2000 had described leaders on the religious right as “agents of intolerance,” returned for this presidential campaign to the Republicans’ Reagan-era playbook, actively recruiting conservative evangelicals, not least by drafting as his running mate a politician so obscure that some suspected her primary qualification for the vice presidency was that she had accepted Jesus as her savior.
But Obama played the God card, too, confessing his sins and proclaiming his faith alongside Clinton and John Edwards in a primary season debate devoted to religion and politics, and parsing biblical passages alongside McCain in a widely hyped television conversation with the purpose-driven pastor Rick Warren. Along the way, Obama told us that his favorite Bible passage is the Sermon on the Mount, repeatedly denied allegations that he is a closet Muslim, and distanced himself from the controversial black-church pastor Jeremiah Wright.
When voters go to the polls Tuesday, they will be casting their ballots in a radically new political landscape in which Republicans no longer enjoy a monopoly on God talk. God only knows to whom God speaks, but both major parties now speak familiarly of God. And don’t think voters aren’t listening.
Although white evangelicals continue to prefer McCain over Obama by roughly the same numbers they preferred Bush over Kerry in 2004, other religious groups are drifting Democratic. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll released in October, Roman Catholics, who in 2004 opted narrowly for Bush (52% to 47%), now prefer Obama by a wide margin (59% to 31%).
The strongest evidence for a tectonic shift in America’s religio-political landscape, however, comes from a Faith in Public Life survey published in October. This poll shows an astonishing turnaround among Hispanic Protestants: from 63%-37% for Bush in 2004 to 50%-34% for Obama in 2008.
But the most telling data point comes in another Faith in Public Life survey, published by Public Religion Research: Americans see Obama as more friendly to religion than McCain. While 49% said Obama was “religion-friendly,” only 45% thought that description fit his GOP opponent, who in some moments during this campaign has seemed at least as pained discussing his faith as John Kerry did four years ago.
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