Another Perspective

Republicans and Religious Voters

They are there for John McCain's taking.

By 7.22.08

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In surveying the bleak electoral landscape, some Republican analysts have suggested that the GOP's embrace of and by socially conservative religious voters has cost it dearly. Secularist voters who might otherwise be receptive to a Republican message are -- so the argument goes -- turned off by the moralizing and moralistic tone of candidates who appeal to such voters. While conservative religious voters might have been reliable -- I hesitate to use the word "faithful" in this context -- supporters, a party closely identified with them has a hard time building a winning coalition. George W. Bush's victories in 2000 and 2004 are improbable flukes, rather than templates for future GOP strategy.

So the argument goes.

Recently, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life issued a poll analysis that puts this argument into perspective. The Pew analysts found that John McCain did slightly less well among religiously affiliated voters than did George W. Bush at this stage of the campaign in 2004 -- 8 points less (61%, as opposed to 69%) among white evangelicals, 4 points less (53%, as opposed to 57%) among white mainline Protestants, and 2 points less (46%, as opposed to 48%) among white, non-Hispanic Catholics.

In a bad Republican year, these numbers aren't all that surprising. But perhaps these numbers are: Barack Obama -- certainly much more religiously demonstrative than John Kerry -- hasn't done much to close the gap with these constituencies. His support among white evangelicals and mainline Protestants is roughly the same (25%, as opposed to 26% in the former case, and 39%, as opposed to 38%, in the latter), while his Catholic support is actually smaller than Kerry's (40%, as opposed to 46%).

There you have it: currently John McCain enjoys a 36 point lead among white evangelicals, a 14 point lead among white mainline Protestants, and a 6 point lead among Catholics. He has these leads in a bad Republican year, facing a charismatic and extraordinarily well-funded opponent. And he has them without having to go out of his way to stress religious themes in his campaign, even as Senator Obama assiduously reaches out to various faith communities.

Perhaps the aforementioned GOP analysts are right after all: Republicans won't have to pay too high a political price if they deemphasize their ties to religious conservatives, and focus their message on national security and economic issues.

But not so fast. The story is a bit more complicated.

THE PEW ANALYSIS also highlights the fact that McCain does less well among religiously unaffiliated voters than George W. Bush did four years ago. Where Bush trailed Kerry 65-29, McCain trails Obama 67-24. With a less obviously religious Republican candidate and a more obviously religious Democrat, the gap among religiously unaffiliated voters has gone from 36% to 43%. If these voters were turned off by appeals to religion, this shouldn't be the case.

I have an alternative hypothesis: many religiously unaffiliated voters are willing to set aside or overlook appeals to religion when they find the policies advocated are congenial. What matters to them is the earthly substance, not what they regard as the heavenly rhetoric. Winning them over doesn't necessarily require toning down religious rhetoric or loosening one's embrace of certain religious constituencies; it requires adopting policies that they regard as substantively appealing.

Not to put too fine a point on it, if the GOP wishes to increase its share of the religiously unaffiliated vote, it has to adopt policies that appeal to that constituency. If I had to bet, I'd bet that those would be liberal and statist policies, not those that focused on traditional Republican themes like market solutions and reducing the size of government.

Yes, there are religiously unaffiliated conservatives, but there are many, many more religiously unaffiliated liberals. There is, I suspect, a relatively low Republican ceiling for the share of the religiously unaffiliated vote, if one wishes to advocate traditionally Republican policies. (To be sure, George W. Bush had a 40% share in June 2000, but that was when he was known, above all, and not very well, as a compassionate conservative.)

It would seem that toning down one's religious message does cost one much support with religiously affiliated voters, but it also doesn't gain much support among the religiously unaffiliated.

WHAT, THEN, SHOULD a Republican presidential candidate do? First, he should remember that mere religious talk doesn't cut it with any constituency. If it did, Barack Obama's support among white Protestants and Catholics would be substantially higher than it is. People are smart enough to see through the talk and wonder about the substantive positions. Barack Obama can talk all he wants about the moral dilemmas surrounding abortion and how it's a decision for a woman, her doctor, and her pastor (not her husband?), but at the end of the day, we know that his voting record is totally aligned with NARAL and Planned Parenthood. People who view the world through stained glass lenses are grown-ups. They know that administering the earthly city requires judgments and arguments that are informed, if not necessarily determined, by history, social science, and experience.

Second, he should pay attention to some other numbers from the Pew analysis. In June 2004, only roughly 4% of religiously affiliated voters didn't know what their political preference was. Right now, those proportions are substantially higher: 12% of white evangelicals, 7% of white mainline Protestants, and 13% of white non-Hispanic Catholics say they're undecided. He needs to figure out how to sway those voters. If they break the way their brethren have, his vote share in these constituencies will approach or actually exceed George W. Bush's.

But most important of all is the Catholic vote, where McCain enjoys a 46-40 lead at the moment, with 13% undecided. Figuring out who those undecideds are and moving them into his camp ought to be a top priority. Catholics have been the decisive swing constituency in recent elections, and they look to be so again this time. And it doesn't hurt that they are well represented in many of the most closely contested states.

Religious talk doesn't matter all that much. But positions, however articulated and defended, that line up with religious teachings may matter a great deal.

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About the Author

Joseph M. Knippenberg teaches at Oglethorpe University.