[Mb-civic] NYTimes.com Article: A Hidden Swing Vote: Evangelicals

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Sat Sep 4 11:03:02 PDT 2004

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A Hidden Swing Vote: Evangelicals

September 4, 2004


The press has made a big issue of how President Bush and
Senator John Kerry are both trying to woo voters from
groups that usually support the other side, be they
military veterans, Hispanics or Jews. Yet one group that
receives almost no attention is Christian evangelicals. We
are repeatedly told they form the president's unshakeable
electoral base. But in truth, this claim is vastly
simplistic: the fashionable image of masses of white
evangelical voters, stirred up by the tricks of Karl Rove
and led by Bible-thumping clergymen, marching in lock step
to deny rights to women and to gays, is hardly born out by
the data. Rather, the real Republican base is the same as
it was before Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" appealed
to religious Protestants in 1968: the wealthy and the

Data about the last two presidential elections drawn from
the 1998, 2000 and 2002 General Social Surveys, carried out
by the National Opinion Research Center at the University
of Chicago, found that the one-fifth of white Americans who
belong to "fundamentalist" churches (like Southern Baptist,
Assembly of God, Holiness, Pentecostal and Missouri Synod
Lutheran) are remarkably pluralistic in their political and
social attitudes. While it is true that white evangelicals
tend to be more conservative socially, as well as
religiously, than the average American, there is little
correlation between religious conservatism and political
conservatism. For example, in the social surveys, about 40
percent of Americans who believe in the literal,
word-for-word interpretation of the Bible describe
themselves as "politically conservative." 

In the last two presidential elections, about 62 percent of
white evangelicals voted Republican - or about 7.5 percent
more than among other American Protestants. A majority,
clearly, but nowhere near unanimity. And in terms of the
electorate as a whole, it's hardly fair to say evangelicals
are a dominant political force. If we measure their overall
political influence as that 7.5 percent differential
multiplied by their share of the electorate - they make up
about 21 percent of voters- it comes to about 1.6
percentage points. Yes, as the 2000 election showed, even
an edge that small can be decisive in a close race. But it
hardly amounts to an overwhelming base. Moreover, those 1.6
percentage points are spread across all regions, not
concentrated in the South, where the evangelicals
supposedly contribute to the Republicans' red state

Clearly, claims that evangelicals have hijacked the
nation's politics are greatly exaggerated. In fact, polling
data show that President Bush's real base is not religious
but economic, the group he jokingly referred to as "the
haves and the have mores." 

The General Social Survey found that 20 percent of American
voters have family incomes of more than $75,000 a year,
while twice that many earn $30,000 or less. The high-income
group (about the same size as the evangelicals) votes
Republican by an 18-point margin, while the low-income
group favors Democrats by 24 percentage points. If the
Republicans were to lose their 18-point advantage among the
affluent, it would cost them about four percentage points
nationwide in the election, more than twice the cost if
they were to lose their edge among evangelicals. 

And neither region nor religion can override the class
divide: if recent patterns hold, a majority (about 52
percent) of poor Southern white evangelicals will vote for
Mr. Kerry in November, while only 12 percent of affluent
Southern white evangelicals will. 

Most poorer Americans of every faith - including
evangelical Christians - vote for Democrats. It's a shame
that few pundits, pollsters or politicians seem to notice. 

Michael Hout is a professor of sociology at the University
of California at Berkeley. Andrew M. Greeley, a Roman
Catholic priest, is a professor of sociology at the
University of Arizona and a research associate at the
National Opinion Research Center. 



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