The God Gap Lives

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Not necessarily in Massachusetts–no one did any exit polls–but now that the Bay State has definitively popped the Obama bubble, it’s worth contemplating just how much the electorate has not changed.

To this end, a new book by Corwin Smidt and his poli-sci crowd at Calvin College’s Henry Center makes clear that reports of the disappearance of the God gap were indeed greatly exaggerated. The Disappearing God Gap? uses the Henry Center’s regular surveys and other data to show that the basic constellation of voting by religious group shifted very little in 2008. This is not big news for those who have been paying attention, but it helps strengthen the argument that the American electorate has settled into pretty stable religious voting blocs–and that efforts to move these one way or another are likely to prove difficult at best.

So what did happen, religion-wise, in 2008? Turnout was more important then shifts of allegiance. Take, for example, Hispanic Catholics. They voted by exactly the same margin for Obama over McCain as they did for Kerry over Bush: 69 percent to 31 percent. But whereas in 2004 they constituted 3.2 percent of the electorate, in 2008 the percentage was 7.5. Contrariwise, non-Hispanic Catholics voted 53 percent to 47 percent for both GOP candidates, but their percentage of the electorate dropped from 19.2 percent to 16.2 percent. Similarly, evangelicals voted almost identically for both Bush (77-23) and McCain (76-24), but their percentage of the vote dropped from 26 percent to 23.7 percent. Add to those number increases in both turnout and percentages among Black Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated and you’ve got the Obama landslide. But turn the enthusiasm level the other way and…it’s the Massachusetts story again and again.

Unfortunately, the full, adjusted numbers from the 2008 exit polls have still not been released, so it’s not possible to cross check some of the book’s odder data. For example, did Obama really pick up support among traditionalist Catholics while losing it among centrists and modernists? If so, perhaps it was because traditionalists are older, poorer Catholics, some of whom were prepared to return to their New Deal roots in hard times.

And why should it have been centrist mainline Protestants who moved toward the Democratic candidate, rather than traditionalists or modernists? If the book is right, it was a major shift, from favoring Bush by two point to favoring Obama by 12–while constituting the same proportion of the electorate (9 percent and 9.1 percent). Maybe that 14 percent swing was exactly what Obama, the more or less centrist mainline Protestant, managed to achieve, whether through religious outreach or identity politics.