- Policy Resources
- News & Analysis
- Your State
PSN on November 20, 2006 - 9:24am
Back in early October, we highlighted The Fragmenting Religious Right & Emerging Progressive Faith Networks-- a foreshadowing of the gains progressives would make among faith voters in the mid-term elections. With the November election victories for progressives, this Stateside Dispatch will analyze the polls on how religious voters shifted in this election, what issues really matter to "values voters" and the success of "religious left" activists in mobilizing faith voters towards progressive election results.
The Decreasing "God Gap" in the Polls
In measuring the role of faith voters, the debate can be confused depending on whether you are talking among regular church-goers, evangelical Christians in particular, or other specific religious denominations. But what was remarkable about 2006 was the across-the-board movement of religious voters towards more progressive candidates.
Weekly Church-Goers: For most of the last decade, Republicans have held a 20-point advantage in the polls among Americans who attend religious services once a week or more. In 2006, that gap was cut in half, from a 22 point gap in 2004 down to just 12 points in 2006, according to the National Election Pool (NEP) exit polls for U.S. House races nationwide. The graph below on these historical patterns of weekly church-goers is courtesy of People for the American Way:
Evangelicals: While the most conservative block of white evangelical Christians remain overwhelmingly loyal Republican voters, 2006 did see erosion in that unity: in 2004 House races, 74% of white evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for Republicans and 25% for Democrats (a 49% margin) while in 2006, the GOP vote dropped to 70% and the Democratic vote increased to 28% (a 42% margin). Given that these voters are the modern grassroots base for the conservative movement, any erosion of that vote is significant. One thing that didn't happen this election is a dropoff in turnout by evangelicals; they were 24% of voters in 2006 compared to 23% in 2004, so the erosion of support for conservative candidates was not likely due to people staying home but seems to reflect changes in actual voter behavior.
Catholics: The 67-million strong slice of Catholics voters, roughly a quarter of the electorate, have been the ultimate swing voter group in recent years-- and they swung decidedly towards progressive candidates in this election. Overall, Catholics supported Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 55-45%. Partly this reflected the heavily Catholic Latino population coming out so strongly for Democrats (giving them roughly 70% of Latino votes), but even white Catholics, a group that had been trending Republican in recent decades, supported Democratic candidates 50 percent to 48 percent, compared to the 53% of the vote they gave Bush in 2004.
Jewish Voters: While a reliably Democratic voting bloc, Jewish voters backed Democratic candidates for the US House of Representatives with 87% of their votes, far higher than the 72-78 percent range the Democrats have received over the last fourteen years.
Muslims: One of the largest swings in religious voting patterns in recent years has been the Muslim vote. Where conservative social values among the Muslim population meant that Bush received 78% of the Muslim vote in 2000, polls have indicated a major swing to Democratic candidates in recent years in reaction to the Iraq war and attacks on civil liberties. In the Virginia Senate seat, that swing appears to have been the deciding factor in the election with an estimated that 50,000 Muslim Virginians voting in the election and polls showing 92%, or roughly 47,000 voted for the Democratic challenger, Jim Webb, far more than Webb's 9,326 margin of victory. On the same day, the first Muslim Congressman, Keith Ellison, was elected from Minnesota.
Values Issues, Values Voters
If any cliché died in November's elections, it's the idea that "values voters" and people of faith care only about a narrow set of social issues like abortion or gay marriage.
Peace and Justice a Higher "Value" for Value Voters: In fact, a Faith in Public Life poll found that Iraq was considered the "moral issue that most influenced your vote" by 45.8% of voters, almost 6 times as many voters as abortion (7.9%) and almost 5 times as many as same-sex marriage (9.4%). Even for those who attend religious services once a week or more, Iraq was the most important moral issue (36.8%), outpolling abortion and same-sex marriage combined (28.2%).
That same poll found that far more voters (57.5%) saw issues of poverty, economic justice and greed/materialism as more urgent moral crises in American culture than abortion and same-sex marriage (24.9%). And it's not just politicians that need to broaden their rhetoric to hold onto "values voters" -- religious organizations that talk about broader issues like peace and poverty get far higher approval from the public than those that talk narrowly about the hot-button social issues.
These results are similar to the American Values Survey released by People for the American Way just before the election which found that when Americans "vote their values," they primarily think about the honesty and integrity of the candidate (39 percent), protecting personal freedoms and individual choice (23 percent), and eliminating poverty and guaranteeing access to health care (21 percent). Only 12 percent of Americans think primarily about abortion and same-sex marriage when voting their values. Even for white evangelicals, four out of five think primarily about something other than abortion or same-sex marriage when voting their values.
The Results at the Polls: If you look at the results of votes on ballot initiatives, bans on gay marriages generally succeeded (although Arizona became the first state to defeat one) but initiatives to raise the minimum wage won by even larger margins. And with anti-abortion initiatives defeated in three states, the Rev. Troy Newman, president of the anti-abortion Operation Rescue, called election day "Bloody Tuesday" because of the defeat not only of those abortion initiatives but of Kansas's attorney general, Phil Kline, who had made his reputation harassing abortion clinics in that state.
Similarly, in Ohio's state school board elections, pro-evolution candidates knocked off anti-evolution candidates around the state. Voters elected all four state board of education candidates who opposed the teaching of intelligent design.
Broadened Faith Voter Agendas: Even many evangelical leaders have broadened their political work into new areas. Christian radio and church bulletins have been running ads in support of a new movie, "The Great Warming," that tells the same tale of the dangers of global warming that Al Gore told in his "An Inconvenient Truth." Not only is the film getting support from mainstream religious leaders like the National Council of Churches, but from religious right leaders like the Rev. Joel Hunter, a Florida pastor who is the new president of the Christian Coalition. "I'm part of the religious right, and am one of those leaders who wants to expand the agenda," says Rev. Hunter, and he reflects an initiative by 86 Evangelical leaders this year who issues a statement calling for action on global warming.
And the shift in Catholic voting patterns may reflect Catholic leaders denouncing anti-immigrant legislation as an affront to social justice. In October, Bishop William Skylstad, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), sent a letter to President George W. Bush asking him to veto H.R. 6061, the Secure Fence Act of 2006 that authorizes construction of a 700 mile fence on the Mexican border. And a top Vatican official just last week denounced the wall being proposed for the Mexican border, comparing it to the Berlin Wall.
With the support of religious liberals, six states passed ballot initiatives calling for a minimum wage hike. "This was a significant shift in the religious vote, where you see a reclaiming of the values debate," said Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a liberal group formed after the last election to counter Catholic conservatives.
The Religious Left in the Electoral Trenches
While issues mattered, so did progressive religious leaders and activists rolling up their sleeves and doing the outreach to fellow parishioners. For too long, the religious right has had the conversation over politics in white churches all to themselves. "The Religious Right's dominance over politics and evangelicals has come to an end," said Jim Wallis, leader of the Sojourners/Call to Renewal movement which distributed more than 300,000 "Voting God's Politics Issues Guides" to challenge the religious right and broaden voters perceptions of what a biblical political agenda means.
In Ohio, you saw broad religious coalitions working together to raise the minimum wage and defeat slot machines and casino gambling. The National Council of Churches' Let Justice Roll Campaign played a lead roll in getting the minimum wage initiative on the ballot and ran ads on Christian radio urging people of faith to support the initiative.
Similarly, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good ran ads in Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia papers called on Catholics to vote based on moral issues like poverty, corruption, and unjust war. Additionally, through local offices in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania and active volunteers in other states, the Alliance distributing 1 million copies of its voter guide to further this broadened agenda.
And while black churches have often been a key reason why black voters have voted based on a broader progressive moral agenda, this election saw some dramatic gains in unlikely places such as Dallas County in Texas. Democrats swept local government in that county with significant help from church leaders: "[Dallas County] Democratic candidates were scheduled for churches every Sunday for three months," said Jane Hamilton, a consultant who coordinated the county's Democratic judicial campaign. Leaders from a dozen large African-American churches met to make Oct. 27 a "Super Sunday" drive to encourage early voting by church congregation members.
All of these efforts need to be expanded to truly engage faith voters in the whole range of issues that should matter to them, but the 2006 election does seem to mark a turning point in reestablishing a far more diverse conversation in American society on what voters of faith will care about in future elections.