The Gap Abides

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As the eyes of the religion-and-politics crowd turn Saddlebrookwards, it may be worth keeping in mind the fundamentals of partisanship on the faith front. As shown by poll after poll, both presidential and down-ticket, asserted worship attendance is an absolutely consistent indicator of how Americans in the aggregate are going to vote. In a nutshell, the more frequent, the more Republican; the less frequent, the more Democratic. That’s true nationwide and state by state. But since the electoral college system still rules, it’s the state-by-state numbers that matter in the presidential race. It’s therefore important to be aware of the differences among states when it comes to attendance.
The simplest way to do this is to look at the polls by Survey USA (SUSA), which divide voters into regular, occasional and “almost never” attenders. Consider the most recent of these, of the presidential and gubernatorial races in Washington State. Washington is one of the lowest attendance states in the nation: 35 percent regular, 27 percent occasional, and 39 percent almost never. Among the Regulars, John McCain and the GOP gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi lead their opponents 59-36 and 65-32 respectively. Among the Almost Nevers, Barack Obama and Democratic incumbent governor Christine Gregoire are ahead 62-32 and 62-36 respectively. And among the Occasionals, it’s 57-39 for Obama and 56-42 for Gregoire. Overall, Obama is ahead of McCain by seven points; Gregoire, ahead of Rossi by two. Most of the difference comes from Obama’s success among the regular attenders, with whom his (losing) margin is 10 points better than Gregoire’s–testimony, perhaps, to Obama’s ability to appeal to religious voters. But the main point is that if Washington were like Kentucky, where nearly six in ten voters say they attend worship regularly, both Obama and Gregoire would be trailing.
The rule of thumb for all voting groups is that it’s the most closely divided ones that are easiest to move from one candidate to the other. So while a marginal shift of Regulars to Obama or of Almost Nevers to McCain would be just fine, the easiest voters on the faith spectrum to flip are the Occasionals. How do you appeal to the religiously lukewarm? I suppose it’s by making clear that you care about religion but aren’t a zealot. Here’s a video showing Obama doing just that, debating Alan Keyes in the 2004 Illinois senatorial race. For his part, McCain’s done a pretty good job acting like he’s lukewarm about religion, but he hasn’t exactly made the case for it.
Update: For the attendance breakdown nationally, take a look at this new IBD/TIPP poll. While the pattern is exactly as indicated, there seems to be some movement towards Obama among regular attenders and toward McCain among irregular ones. That bears watching.