As scholars who doubt the existence of a culture war point out, there remains in the United States a (very) large corps of moderate citizens and voters, and these voters truly hold the balance of power in American elections. These voters, and even a large portion of seculars, have overwhelmingly positive views of religion and desire an important public and political role for religious symbols and values. The analyses reported here suggest that even among many of these centrist citizens and voters, the Democratic Party is not seen as friendly toward religion, and these analyses show that this is strongly related to the Party’s general reputation and electoral outcomes.
This second dimension of the Democrats’ problem also suggests an alternative route to overcoming their recent struggles with religion. That is, instead of having to peel away at the conservative Christian base of the GOP, the Democrats may benefit simply from convincing centrists of their general friendliness toward religion. Attempting to convince the public of their friendliness to religion, however, may carry risks of its own for the Democrats. Our analysis indicates that among seculars, who have become one of the core constituencies of the Democratic Party, those who view the Democrats as friendly toward religion were actually less likely to have voted for Kerry than were those who view the Party as unfriendly toward religion.
Of course, none of this is to suggest that perceptions of Democrats’ friendliness to religion are the new linchpin of American politics or the single key to understanding electoral outcomes. But in a nation where the electorate is as closely divided as the American electorate has been in recent years, any one of a number of factors could, conceivably, serve to tip the balance in one direction or another. Perceptions of the Democrats’ friendliness toward religion may be one such factor.
In other words, there may be some portion of the electorate for whom Obama’s generally religion-friendly position--despite its predictably liberal conclusions on almost every issue--is sufficient to move them in the Democratic direction.
The one thing that gives me pause, however, is the failure of the Pew analysts to take race into account. I suspect that African-Americans, generally speaking, regard Democrats as friendly toward religion. By not controlling for that factor in their analysis, the Pew folks may, first of all, have overstated the perception of Democratic friendliness toward religion and, second, have overstated the prospects for moving people in the Democratic direction by altering public perceptions.
Of course, as they note, in a closely divided electorate, it doesn’t necessarily take much movement to shift the outcome. This is less true in the House of Representatives, where there are very few genuinely competitive seats, but it could make a difference in Senate races and perhaps even in a presidential race.
Looking at the 2004 state-by-state results, there six states that GWB won narrowly: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, and Ohio. Ohio would have been in the Kerry column with a shift of roughly 69,000 votes (1.3% of the electorate), Florida with a shift of 191,000 votes (2.5%). Had 0.43% of the voters in Iowa shifted, along with 0.6% of the voters in New Mexico and 1.3% in Nevada, Kerry would have won the electoral vote (without, of course, necessarily winning the fictitious national popular vote).
Now, factor in a consideration of religious affiliation by state. Evangelicals are the largest or second-largest bloc of potential voters in each of the six states. In two states (Iowa and Ohio), mainline Protestants are the largest; in one (New Mexico, naturally), Latino Catholics are the largest. While there’s all sorts of talk about a leftward drift among evangelicals, I continue to believe that an issue like abortion will continue to loom relatively large for them, as it will for Catholics. The religious voters most likely to be susceptible to Democratic appeals are mainline Protestants, who have been migrating toward the left and diminishing in number (thanks both to the aging of the population in the pews and the well-documented silly trendiness of the denominational hierarchies and/or bureaucracies).
Barack Obama’s appeal strikes me as strongest with the mainliners, and secondarily with the African-American church. (While I share Peter Lawler’s view that "African Americans are easily the most genuinely Christian Americans who vote Democratic," I think Obama’s biography and faith journey are uncharacteristic of that population: his faith seems more cerebral and less evangelical than is typically found in African-American churches.) He looks a little like some of the "seekers" who populate some of the big evangelical churches, but to the extent that he emphasizes social justice at the expense of personal transformation, he may lack a certainly credibility at places like Saddleback Church. Can his appeal make a difference? Perhaps. Has he found the Democratic "magic bullet" destined to diminish the "God gap"? I don’t think so.