the impact of religion on the 2004 election

On p. 29 of Trends 2005, a report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, there is a fascinating chart. (Go directly to the pdf.) Luis Lugo and his colleagues have estimated the importance of various demographic factors in predicting whether an individual voted Democratic or Republican in 2004. They found that church attendance was as important as race; almost twice as important as living in a union household; 2.5 times more important than the urban/rural split; between three and four times more important than income, age, gender, or region (North vs. South); and 5.6 times more important than education. The impact of race was “almost entirely a function” of the Democratic leanings of African American voters; but “the relationship between church attendance and vote choice is seen across the full range of the population.” The impact of church attendance was about one fifth greater in 2004 than in 2000. Gender became less important.

Immediately after the election, many Democrats panicked when they saw “moral values” appear as the top category of issues in the exit polls. Then came a backlash. Commentators correctly noted that “moral values” may have come first, but they only attracted 22% of the whole electorate. Besides, “moral values” is an ambiguous phrase, since it can mean opposition to abortion and gay marriage, or support for those things–or even opposition to Abu Ghraib and Enron.

Even granting those points, there was a reason for the panic. America is divided into red and blue not by income, education, or beliefs about economic policy– and not even by state and region–but above all by race and religion. This is bad news for anyone who wants the public to support more progressive economic policies. It is also bad news for libertarian Republicans, who find themselves belonging to a party whose constituency cares about religion, not taxes or welfare programs. It’s no wonder that actual federal economic policy is neither progressive nor libertarian, but simply shortsighted and profligate.

However, politics is fluid, not static. I continue to believe that people ignored their own economic situations in 2004 and voted according to their religious identities because Republicans clearly explained how they would promote socially conservative policies, while Democrats offered no persuasive solutions to deep economic problems, such as the loss of manufacturing jobs and persistent poverty. If we had a competition between “traditional values” and economic solutions, I think the latter might win. If, however, a campaign pits traditional values against nothing new, people will vote according to their religion every time.

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