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America, God & Politics In 2012

This one’s for the hardcore political junkies. Politicos can’t talk about elections for too long before the conversation inevitably turns to religion and its impact on the nation’s major political contest: electing a President of the United States.

Here is a comprehensive analysis of how religion impacts U.S. elections that also provides some insight into trends that are unfolding as the nation’s population ages. It also offers compelling answers to a few pressing questions like: Will Christian conservatives embrace Mitt Romney, a Mormon? Is the American population becoming less Protestant? What impact could that have on our nation’s electoral politics? Read on for some answers provided by Anzalone Liszt Research.Religiosity in America and the World

Belief in God

No matter what other religious beliefs or customs may have atrophied over the course of the American experience, a belief in God is nearly unanimous among Americans. May 2011 Gallup polling shows 92% of Americans “believe in God” – a number that has remained roughly static since World War II. In the 1970s, Gallup began also asking about the more expansive belief in “God or a universal spirit”, with that number also tracking in the low to mid 90% range in the last 35 years. Currently, Americans who were asked about “a belief in God” (92%) and those asked about “belief in a God or a universal spirit” (91%) show almost identical responses.

Gallup finds that women (94%) show slightly greater belief than men (90%), with Americans age 18-29 exhibiting the lowest level among any major subgroup (84%). Though belief in God is overwhelming across the demographic board, other subgroups that don’t show quite as high a level include those: with post-graduate education (87%), who live in the East (86%), liberals (85%), and political independents (89%). The South is the most devout (96%) region, and conservatives (98%) and Republicans (98%) show almost unanimous levels of belief.

Religion in Daily Life

Though more than nine in ten Americans express a belief in God, the same Gallup polling reveals less than two in three (65%) indicate “religion is an important part of their daily life”. International Gallup polling from 2007-2008, shows Argentina and Kosovo with very similar religiosity scores as the United States. Gallup identifies Egypt (100%), Bangladesh (99%), and Sri Lanka (99%) as the “most religious” countries, with five African countries, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates only very slightly behind the top three with 98% of their populace indicating religion is an important component of their daily life. Estonia (14%), Sweden (17%), Denmark (18%), and Norway (20%) rank as the “least religious” countries.

Among U.S. states, the top ten “most religious” are Southern or border states, starting with Mississippi (84%) through Texas and Kentucky (74%). Vermont is the “least religious” state (42%), and the ten least religious states consist of only New England and Western Pacific states (plus Alaska). North Carolina is the only top ten “most religious” state won by President Obama in 2008, while Alaska is the only top ten “least religious” state carried by John McCain. Gallup’s findings also allow for parallels to be drawn between the religiosity of American states and those of foreign countries. For example, by Gallup’s measure, Mississippi (85%) is more religious than Iran (82%), Alaska’s percentage (51%) is almost identical to Israel’s (50%), and Vermont and Switzerland both clock in at 42%.

Trends Among Protestants and Catholics

American belief in God has remained above 90% since Gallup began probing the question almost seventy years ago, but the composition of American believers has changed significantly in that time. While the percentage of American Catholics (22-28%) and Jews (2-4%) has remained relatively static since the 1940s, Gallup polling from 1948-2004 has shown a steep decline among American Protestants. In 1955, seven in ten Americans identified themselves as Protestants, while the latest Gallup figures (from 2004) show that number has fallen to a new low of 50%. The same polling shows 10% identifying as non-Protestant / non-Catholic Christians, the number of Americans expressing no religious affiliation reaching a new high with 9%, and 3% labeling themselves as followers of other religions (neither Christian nor Jewish). Among mainline Protestants, Baptists (16% of all Americans), Methodists (8%), Lutherans (5%), Presbyterians (3%), and Episcopalians (2%) have all seen their market share shrink in the past forty years.

Protestant identification is dropping but Protestant church attendance remains relatively static. In fact, the 47% of Protestants who say they’ve attended church in the last seven days is a slight uptick from the same measure in 1955 (42%) – though Protestant attendance has generally measured in the low-mid 40% range over the past several decades. Conversely, Catholics (whose percentage of the American public has remained largely stable) face steeply declining attendance rates. In 2009, only 42% of Catholics indicated they attended church in the last seven days, compared to 75% in the 1950s. Catholics and Protestants face different problems, but both have cause for concern that their overall participation is trending in the wrong direction.

American Religiosity’s Impact on Politics and Public Policy

More than 90% of Americans believe in God and almost two-thirds say religion plays an important role in their daily life. However, these personal characteristics don’t necessarily translate outward. Gallup numbers from January of this year indicate only 39% of Americans would like to see religion have “more influence” in the U.S., with 29% each preferring “less influence” or the status quo. Even more fundamentally, a majority of Americans (58%) are “satisfied with the influence of organized religion in America” (36% Dissatisfied).

Believers at the Ballot Box – Presidential Elections

The early 1980s saw the birth of the Jerry Falwell-led Moral Majority, and Democratic incumbent (and born-again Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher) Jimmy Carter went from taking 41% among white Protestants in 1976 to 1984 nominee Walter Mondale carrying just 27%. Since Carter’s 1976 election, exit polling indicates no Democratic candidate for President has broken the 40% mark with white Protestants; Bill Clinton in 1996 (36%) and Barack Obama in 2008 (34%) have scored the highest Democratic vote share among white Protestants since 1976.

As the Moral Majority turned into the Christian Coalition, and the Christian Coalition turned into the base of the Republican Party, Republicans now must run up huge margins among religious voters to win at the national level. However, as white Protestants comprise a smaller and smaller piece of the American pie, Republicans must increasingly expand from their religious conservative base to win. John McCain’s margin among white Protestants (34% Obama / 65% McCain) was actually slightly greater than George W. Bush’s margin in 2000 (34% Gore / 63% Bush) – but where Bush won a narrow Electoral College victory, McCain lost decisively.

Similarly, despite taking roughly 53% of the popular vote in 2008, Obama carried only 34% of white Protestants. Comparatively, Bill Clinton carried a similar 33% of white Protestants in his 1992 election when he received 43% of the popular vote – ten points less than Obama’s ’08 popular vote share. Obama’s ability to run up a big national margin without really moving the needle with white Protestants demonstrates that, simply put, America is becoming less white and less Protestant. 

Barack Obama’s campaign did exceed traditional Democratic performance among “born-again / evangelical Christians” (41% Obama / 57% McCain) and weekly church-goers (43% Obama / 55% McCain) – reaching Democratic highs since such questions were initially asked in exit polling in 1980. However, these numbers are somewhat deceiving. The 2008 Obama performance among African Americans and Hispanics (two groups that generally show higher average church attendance than whites) masked a lack of movement among white Protestants.

Believers at the Ballot Box – 2010

Of course, off-year electorates are a different animal, and religious voters certainly played a crucial role in the 2010 GOP wave. In 2010, Republican candidates won white Protestants by 41 points (28% Dem / 69% GOP) and white evangelicals by almost 60 points (19% Dem / 77% GOP). Democrats took it on the chin among these groups in 2006 as well, but were able to keep the margin with white Protestants to 24 points (37% Dem / 61% GOP) and 42 points among white evangelicals (28% Dem / 70% GOP). Though successful in 2010, the necessity of running up a 60-point margin among white evangelicals to achieve national success is a heavy burden even for today’s Republican Party.

The Mormon Factor

The 2008 Republican Presidential primary has the opportunity to serve as a crucible for the involvement of Mormons at the highest level of Republican politics. Mitt Romney was certainly a top-tier candidate in the 2008 primaries and won nominating contests from Maine to Minnesota to Montana, but failed to break through in the South. Last cycle, Romney was competing against Southern favorite-son Mike Huckabee and establishment-backed John McCain. In 2012 however, with at least a plurality share of establishment support in his camp and no current candidate in the field a natural fit to consolidate Southern Republicans, Mitt Romney is the closest thing the GOP has to a front-runner. Even beyond Romney, borderline top-tier Republican candidate Jon Huntsman is also Mormon. In only one example of the curious composition of the Republican presidential field, there are two viable Mormon candidates and arguably no viable Christian conservative from the South.

Testing for religious bias is always a difficult proposition, and Romney and Huntsman can take some solace in recent numbers from the Pew Center that show only 25% of voters admitting to be less likely to support a Mormon candidate. And Democrats, perhaps because of Romney’s high-profile as a Mormon candidate, are actually less likely to support such a candidate (31% Less Likely) than Republicans (23% Less Likely). However, more than one in three white evangelicals (34%) indicate they are less likely to support a Mormon. Perhaps Romney or Huntsman can win Southern primaries without significant evangelical support or perhaps they can win the nomination without racking up Southern delegates. But, in a vacuum, the “Mormon factor” seems to pose at least a speed-bump to Romney or Huntsman’s path to the nomination, and potentially an even more significant hurdle.

The Importance Voters Place on Belief

Beyond voting behavior, Americans are split on the importance of a political candidate’s religious beliefs. A 2007 CBS News Poll revealed that roughly half of voters thought it was appropriate for “political candidates to talk about their religious beliefs as part of their political campaigns” (50%), and a similar amount (48%) believed it inappropriate. The same survey found a solid majority of Americans thought it inappropriate for “religious leaders to urge people to vote for or against a political candidate” (27% Appropriate / 70% Inappropriate).

The 2007 CBS News poll also found voters less concerned that a political candidate shares the respondent’s own religious beliefs (38% Important / 61% Not Important), than a candidate has “strong” beliefs regardless of if they are shared with the individual (63% Important / 36% Not Important). The lesson from these numbers would appear to be that it’s less important what a candidate believes, just that he or she believes something-though Mitt Romney may be inclined to take exception to that notion in the near future.

Additional items of interest:

  • Frequency of American church attendance by ethnic, age, political, education, and geographic subgroup
  • The Pew Forum’s data on the religious composition of the members of the 112th Congress
  • The CIA’s estimate of religious affiliation in each country

SOURCE: Anzalone Liszt Research

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