finally time to retire that tiresome,
inaccurate phrase ‘the God Gap,’ so beloved by pollsters and commentators
after the 2004 election,” wrote Amy Sullivan, an editor of Washington
Monthly, in the New Republic’s online edition November 8.
“Yesterday the God Gap all but disappeared.”
On November 11, the
Post’s Alan Cooperman reported, “As the results of the midterm elections
sank in this week, religious leaders across the ideological spectrum found
something they could agree on: The ‘God gap’ in American politics has
But in fact, Sullivan
and the diverse religious leaders jumped to the wrong conclusion. The full
exit poll data released this month show that the partisan divide between
more religious voters and less religious ones actually increased in the
November election. The religion gap, as we prefer to call it, is not ready
for retirement yet.
Why the misapprehension?
It has to do with the fact that there are two components to the religion
gap: the two-party vote of the more religious and the two-party vote of the
Since becoming a subject
of general interest a few years ago, the religion gap has most often been
represented simply by looking at the more religious—typically defined as
those who say they attend worship at least once a week. This made sense
because, during the 1990s, it was among these frequent attenders that the
gap became most pronounced, in favor of the Republicans.
In the 2000, 2002, and
2004 congressional elections, exit polls showed frequent attenders dividing
their votes roughly 60 percent to 40 percent for the GOP. Last year,
however, only 56.4 percent of them voted for Republican congressional
candidates. By that measure, the religion gap did shrink, from nearly 20
percentage points to under 13.
But the bigger,
overlooked story had to do with the less religious—those who say they attend
worship anywhere from a few times a month to not at all. Their support for
Democratic congressional candidates grew from 53.5 percent in 2002 to 56.7
in 2004 to a whopping 62.6 percent last year. At 25.2 percentage points, the
2006 difference in the two-party vote among less frequent attenders was
larger than the difference among frequent attenders has ever been.
The net result of these
two vote differentials has been increasing polarization of the electorate
along religious lines. This can be seen most clearly if we compare the votes
of frequent and less frequent attenders for the same party over the past
three elections (see Table 1). What this shows is a religion gap that grew
from 13.2 to 16 to 19 percentage points—with most of the growth attributable
to the increased preference for Democrats on the part of the less observant.
A good index of this
trend is the growth in the votes of religiously unaffiliated voters for
Democratic congressional candidates from 61 percent in 2002 to 70.9 percent
in 2004 to 75.3 percent last year. Overall, the political bottom line for
2006 was that the Republicans had a bigger problem with less religious
voters than the Democrats had with more religious ones—a sharp reversal of
fortunes from 2004.
Of course, religious
polarization in contemporary American politics is not all about frequency of
worship. Last fall, a large quantity of ink was spilled wondering about
whether white evangelicals would jump the Republican ship—or at minimum stay
at home—as a result of GOP corruption scandals and, perhaps, a more
religion-friendly look on Democratic faces.
But, as was widely
noted, white evangelicals turned out to vote in large numbers and turned to
the Democrats in disproportionately small ones. Overall, 72.6 percent of
white evangelicals voted for Republican congressional candidates in
2006—just two percentage points less than in the last midterm election in
2002 and well below the 6.2 percentage-point shift for the electorate as a
whole between 2002 and 2006 (see Table 2).
As in 2004, “values” was
the issue that counted most for white evangelicals, 44.2 percent of whom
ranked it as the issue that “mattered most” in the election, according to a
post-election survey by the Pew Research Center. That was more than three
times the number of evangelicals who ranked Iraq number one. “Corruption”
weighed in at only 5.1 percent.
In a word, white
evangelicals remained as wedded to the Republican Party as ever in 2006.
Together with other conservative Christians (led by the Mormons, who vote
Republican in even greater numbers), they represent the GOP’s religious
base, constituting about a quarter of the electorate.
On the other side of the
religious divide are black Protestants, non-white Catholics (Latinos, for
the most part), Jews, and those of other non-Christian faiths. In the last
election, they voted for Democratic congressional candidates at rates
ranging from 92.4 percent (black Protestants) to 71.6 percent (other
faiths). The Democratic trend in Jewish voting was particularly striking,
going from 63.9 percent in 2002 to 77.9 in 2004 to 87.6 percent in 2006.
Together with the
religiously unaffiliated, these religious groups, representing nearly
one-third of the electorate, constitute the religious base of the Democratic
Party. For them, Iraq was the issue that mattered most, far outranking
In the middle in 2006
were white mainline Protestants and white Catholics, each representing
one-fifth of the electorate and both closely divided between Democratic and
Republican voters. These are swing religious groups par excellence.
The white Catholics,
trending Republican for a couple of decades, bounced back to the Democrats
in 2006. They gave a special priority to the economy, with 32.8 percent
naming it the most important issue.
once the bedrock of the Republican Party, have grown increasingly Democratic
during the George W. Bush presidency. “Corruption” ranked first in the array
of issues they considered “extremely important,” according to the exit
polls. In the Pew poll, one-third of them said Iraq was the issue that
mattered most—nearly four times the number that cited “values.”
As we have noted in
previous discussions of the religion gap in these pages, there has been an
important gender component to the religion gap. Specifically, frequent
attending men support Republicans at higher rates than frequent attending
women, while less frequent attending women support Democrats at higher rates
than less frequent attending men. How did this gender gap fare in 2006?
Simply put, it shrank,
to 3.5 percent from 7.4 percent in 2002 among frequent attenders and to 5.3
from 6.2 percent among the less frequent.
Region is the other
dimension of religious voting that we have been tracking, based on the eight
regions discussed in the Greenberg Center’s Religion by Region project.
In the 2004 elections for Congress, each party carried four
regions, with New England, the Middle Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Pacific
Northwest going to the Democrats and the Midwest, Mountain West, South, and
Southern Crossroads going to Republicans.
In 2006, the Democrats
carried six regions and, of the remaining two, came within four-tenths of a
percentage point of the Republicans in the Mountain West. The outlier was
the Southern Crossroads region, which appears to be rapidly turning into the
GOP’s regional heartland.
In 2002, the Crossroads
actually broke slightly in favor of the Democrats in congressional voting,
by a margin of 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent. But the Democratic total sank
to 42.4 percent in 2004 and to 40.3 percent in 2006, making it the only
region in the country where the GOP gained ground last November.
The explanation does not
clearly derive from the issues profile of the region— although, by a small
margin, more respondents cited “values” as extremely important than in any
other region. More likely, it lies in some combination of region-wide
partisan realignment toward the GOP and residual attachment to President
Bush in his native Texas, the region’s largest state by far.
What does all this
portend for 2008 and beyond?
In broad terms, nothing
much has changed. Each political party retains the strong support of certain
religious constituencies, and across the board, the more religious continue
to prefer Republican candidates and the less religious, Democratic.
Regionally, the Democrats remain strong in the Northeast and Far West; the
Republicans, in the heartland—though increasingly, it seems, parts of the
Southeast such as Virginia are in play.
It is possible that, as
the war in Iraq winds down, the level of Republican voting between both
religious segments of the electorate will bounce back to 2002 or 2004
levels, returning control of Congress into GOP hands. It is also possible
that Republicans will attract even more support from the most religious
But the trend lines
suggest otherwise. Just as the growth in Republican voting by the more
religious part of the electorate took several election cycles to reach its
peak and stayed there for several elections, so it is telling that that the
country’s less observant citizens have voted increasingly Democratic in the
course of the last few trips to the polls. Meanwhile, the Republican decline
among the most religious has been modest, so a simple recovery of these
voters is unlikely to offset Democratic gains among the less religious.
Bush’s first term, annual Gallup surveys found that more Americans believed
organized religion should have greater influence in the nation than believed
it should have less. For the past three years, however, it’s been the other
Democrats, in short, may
be able to reap the benefits of resisting the faith-based politics of the
other side. Republicans, caught between their solid “values” base and a more
secular-minded electorate, may have their work cut out for them.
regions are comprised as follows: New England (ME, NH, VT, MA, CT, RI);
Middle Atlantic (NY, NJ, PA, DE, MD, DC); South (WV, VA, KY, TN, NC, SC,
GA, FL, AL, MS); Midwest (OH, MI, IN, IL, WI, MN, IA, NE, KS, ND, SD);
Southern Crossroads (LA, TX, AR, OK, MO); Mountain West (MT, WY, CO, ID,
UT, NM, AZ); Pacific (NV, CA, HI); Pacific Northwest (OR, WA, AK).