Spring 2005, Vol. 7, No. 3

Table of Contents
Winter 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Our New Religious Politics

Religion Gap Swings New Ways

A Certain Presidency

Schiavo Interminable

Iraq's Sunni Clergy Enter the Fray

Windsor Knot

Protestants in Decline

The Televangelical Scandal That Wasn't

Channeling Bleep

Cut-Rate Religion Coverage



Religion Gap Swings New Ways
by John C. Green

The news from the religion-gap front in the 2004 election was that George W. Bush was able to reach beyond his base of frequent worshipers to pick up a majority of voters who said they attend religious services “a few times a month.” This group, which he lost to Al Gore in 2000, emerged as the religion gap’s new swing vote.

Bush also made small gains among those who said they attend services a few times a year or not at all. Since those claiming to attend once a week or more voted for Bush at about the same rate as in 2000, the upshot was a slight decrease in the overall religion gap, as measured by the difference between the percentages of his vote coming from frequent as opposed to less frequent attenders.

Because these results derive from the now notorious 2004 election-day exit polls, they must be viewed with some caution. But given how well they track the results from earlier, more accurate exit polls, there is reason to believe they provide a broadly dependable portrait of the impact of religion on the election.

     The first part of the accompanying table presents the two-party vote in terms of frequent (weekly or better) and less than weekly worship attenders. These figures show a now common pattern: Bush won the former and Kerry the latter. Specifically, Bush’s margin in 2004 among the frequent attenders increased by so small an amount that it’s hidden in rounding the figures, while among less frequent attenders Kerry fell one percent behind Gore’s performance in 2000.

The second part of the table unpacks this attendance dichotomy into each of its component parts. It shows that the “few times a month” attenders shifted their support from six percentage points in favor of Gore over Bush to two percentage points in favor of Bush over Kerry.

Representing 15 percent of 2004 voters, the monthlies would have given Kerry more than two and a half million extra votes nationwide had they voted for him at the same rate they voted for Gore in 2000—enough to have brought him within one million votes of the president. To have won, Kerry would have had to have found some additional support elsewhere.

What about the dramatic expansion of turnout in 2004? That increase occurred quite evenly up and down the levels of worship attendance, with just a few minor fluctuations. So the big turnout in 2004 did not result from a change in the relative distribution of worship attenders. Because the electorate was so much bigger in 2004, the actual number of ballots at each level of attendance expanded considerably.

As in 2000, the 2004 religion gap extended across the largest religious traditions, with Bush doing best among regularly attending white Christians. But in most cases, Bush gained more among the less frequent attenders. In the case of white Catholics, for example, the Bush vote increased from 64 percent to 66 percent among those who went to church more than once a week, but from 51 percent to 59 percent among those who turned up a few times a month. The Catholic swing vote swung in Bush’s direction.

A change in the exit poll question wording between 2000 and 2004 renders comparisons among white Protestants imprecise, but a similar pattern appears to have held there as well.1 Bush gained slightly among the most active evangelicals (80 percent to 81 percent), but improved more among the monthly attenders (64 percent to 79 percent). He also experienced a small improvement among Latino Catholics and African-American Protestants.

There were a few offsets to the Bush gains. Not surprisingly, the president appears to have lost a little ground among voters who said they were unaffiliated or secular.2

And although Bush once again won a majority of the mainline Protestant vote, it looks as though he made only a tiny gain among the less frequent attenders (from 52 percent to 53 percent) and, most significantly, lost substantial ground among their frequent attending counterparts (from 62 percent to 54 percent). Mainline Protestants may be the faith group to watch in the future. Because the exit poll data has not yet been released in their entirety, it is hard to be any more specific about the extent to which the 2004 religion gap was affected by factors like gender, region, and turnout among particular religious groups. But the published reports offer some suggestions.

Most importantly, the Bush campaign’s extensive mobilization of religious communities maintained the support of regular attenders and expanded their turnout in line with the rest of the country. The greater prominence of social issues, especially same-sex marriage, surely facilitated these efforts.

It is possible that this mobilization of voters on religious lines—through an appeal to their “moral values”—should be credited with enabling the president to gather in more few-times-a-month attenders and minorities. It is, of course, also possible that those groups voted for Bush in higher numbers for other reasons such as the war on terror.

At least for this election, the monthly attenders voted more like the weekly attenders, and their shift narrowed the religion gap so as to give Bush a decisive advantage in a very tight election. Closely divided between Republican and Democrat, these pretty regular churchgoers may be the swing vote that determines the outcome of future national elections. Under the circumstances, the Democrats would be well advised to listen to those urging them to do a better job connecting with people in the pews.

 1In 2000, it asked “are you a member of the religious right?” In 2004, it asked “are you an evangelical or born again Christian?” To compare the two it was necessary to estimate what the “born again” measure would have been in 2000 based on past surveys that asked both questions.

2The “unaffiliateds” and “seculars” need to be differentiated from those who say they never attend religious services. The latter, who trended slightly towards Bush in 2004, include those who, despite their lack of attendance, nonetheless profess a religious identity.



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