Obama hikes religious vote in election

By Dennis Gruending

religious_vote.jpgBarrack Obama won the recent American presidential election handily over the Republican Senator John McCain. Exit polls also indicate that Obama hiked the Democrats’ standing among most religious groups, significantly in some cases and marginally in others. Catholics swung back to the Democrats after supporting George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004. White evangelical Protestants, however, continue their staunch support for the Republicans and voted for McCain in landslide numbers. Protestants, when analyzed as a single group that includes both the evangelical and mainline denominations, voted for McCain by a margin of 54-45%, while Jewish people voted for Obama by a margin of 78% to 21%. Those who profess no religious affiliation are a core support group for the Democrats and voted for Obama in about the same numbers (75% to 23%) as did Jewish voters. Numbers such as these indicate that the cultural wars in the U.S. may well continue despite Obama’s convincing victory.

The fact that information on these voting trends is available so quickly is a result of large exit polls of voters conducted via the internet on November 4, the day of the election. These results and accompanying analysis have been collected and posted online by The Pew Forum on Religion and Pubic Life.

Obama won 53% of the popular vote compared to 46% for McCain. This may appear to be relatively close but in what was essentially a two-candidate race it is a significant victory. Obama’s share of the vote was an improvement of five percentage points over the showing of Democratic contender John Kerry in 2004. Obama also won states in every corner of the country so it will not be convincing for critics to say that he represents only large urban areas on either coast. It is interesting to note that while Obama did extremely well among blacks and very well among Hispanics, he did not win the white vote. In that sense at least this American election is less historic and transformative than many journalists and pundits have described. McCain took 55% of the white vote compared to Obama’s 43%. Obama did win more of that vote than John Kerry did in 2004 and the support of whites was key in states such as Iowa and Indiana in 2008.

Catholics supported Obama over McCain by a nine-point margin (54% to 45%). Four years ago, they voted for George Bush over Kerry by a five-point margin (52% to
47%). Obama performed particularly well among Latino Catholics, capturing 67% of their vote. He did not win among white Catholics although he did improve the Democratic vote over that in 2004. White Catholics favoured McCain by a vote of 52% to 47%. White evangelical Protestants voted for McCain by a whopping margin of 73% to 26%, a ratio of 3 to1, but that still represented an improvement for Obama over John Kerry’s numbers in 2005. The Catholic population accounts for about 27% of the American electorate, and white evangelicals for 23%.

One reason for increased Democratic support among people of religious faith is a general one – many voters were disillusioned after eight years of George W. Bush and the Republicans. Americans are spooked by the financial and economic crisis and a majority of them trust the Democrats to manage the economy more than they trust the Republicans. But Obama, who has attended for years at a black church in Chicago, also appeared comfortable talking about his faith and its influence on him. His outreach to religious voters was also well financed and organized. According to one news report, the Democrats in 2004 had a religious outreach “staff” of one. Obama’s campaign had an entire religious outreach department, with money to spend and a candidate who was interested. This outreach may have paid off on election day. Some observers say that Obama’s improved standing among religious groups represents a significant cultural shift but others see it as less than that. “It really doesn’t look to me like a realignment,” says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “Rather,” he says, “Obama made religion work for him in a way other Democrats haven’t.”

Given the results of the election, the evangelical leadership and Catholic bishops may have some soul searching to do. Evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for McCain but it is Obama who will inhabit the White House. A majority of Catholics, in essence, bucked their bishops by voting for the Democrats. In 2004, the Catholic bishops were harshly critical of Kerry for his pro-choice position and in some cases they urged that he or even Catholics who voted for him should be barred from receiving communion. The bishops helped swing the election to Bush and many Catholics resented it. The hierarchy regrouped by releasing a document called Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship in November 2007. It was meant to guide Catholics but it stopped short of telling them how to vote. But in 2008, faced with the prospect of a victory by Obama, a sizeable minority of bishops began an aggressive push to encourage Catholics to make abortion their main issue.

The influential New York Times journalist Peter Steinfels writes that the bishops were big losers in this presidential election. “By appearing to tie their moral stance on abortion so closely to a particular political choice,” Steinfels asked, “have they in fact undermined their moral persuasiveness on that issue as well as their pastoral effectiveness generally?”

The American electors have spoken. Those religious leaders and organizations that were opposed to Obama will now have to decide whether their strategy will be one of
cooperation, coexistence or confrontation.

One thought on “Obama hikes religious vote in election

  1. You emphasize Obama’s increase among Catholics (“Catholics supported Obama over McCain by a nine-point margin (54% to 45%). Four years ago, they voted for George Bush over Kerry by a five-point margin (52% to
    47%).”), but isn’t that well within the margin of error given that Obama improved upon Kerry’s performance by 5% overall? If Catholics merely moved with the rest of the population, then Obama had little “special appeal”.

    Perhaps it would be better to suggest that improving among Catholics just as much as he did among every other group is still impressive.


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