By David Hill - 03/09/05 12:00 AM EST
Newly released poll results on the impact of religion on the 2004 presidential election make two things clear. First, religion can trump ethnicity as a causal factor in voting. Second, Democrats are in more trouble with Catholics than most pundits suspect.
Those are just a few of the insights to be gleaned from the Fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics, a project of the University of Akron that was underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The elaborate study is based on pre-election and post-election interviews with 2,730 adult Americans.
The analysts divided their large sample into 18 categories of religious belief that “describe the American religious landscape.”
Some of the categories are familiar. For example, we see “traditionalist evangelical Protestants” (12.6 percent of the electorate) and “centrist mainline Protestants” (7 percent). There are also smaller groups, such as Jews (1.9 percent) and “atheists/agnostics” (3.2 percent).
But what sets this analysis apart from other treatments of religion and politics is the introduction of ethnicity into the categorization process. Three groups are defined by ethnicity and faith: black Protestants (9.6 percent), Hispanic Catholics (4.5 percent) and Hispanic Protestants (2.8 percent). That typology means the remaining Protestants are white non-Hispanics. The remaining Catholics are mostly non-Hispanic whites. (Presumably, there were too few black Catholics to constitute a separate category.)
Among all evangelical Protestants, 78 percent voted for Bush, while 50 percent of all mainline Protestants voted for Bush. But among Hispanic Protestants, Bush garnered an amazing 63 percent of the vote. That’s 26 percentage points higher than the Republican Party identification (merely 37 percent) in that category. So Hispanics Protestants responded to the electoral choice more like Protestants than like Hispanics. Religion trumped ethnicity.
The same pattern was generally true for Hispanic Catholics. Although only 15 percent of Hispanic Catholics are Republican, 31 percent of them voted for Bush, doubling the GOP base.
Black Protestants responded very differently. For blacks, race still wins. Only 17 percent of black Protestants voted for Bush, his lowest total among any of the 18 categories of religion.
What’s interesting about Hispanic Catholics and Protestants is that as a group they are not your typical religious-right voters. They are less likely than traditionalist evangelical Protestants to say their faith is more important than other factors in deciding their vote for president. And they are less likely to consider social issues (abortion and gay marriage) “very important” or more important than foreign policy and economic issues.
Both Hispanic groups seem most concerned about economic issues such as jobs and taxes. The possibility must be acknowledged, however, that a higher percentage of Hispanic Catholics and Protestants who voted for Bush are focused on social issues. From the Akron report alone, that cannot be determined.
By breaking out non-Hispanic Catholics into a separate category, it is clear that Democrats are in more trouble with Catholics than some have suspected. Overall, 41 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics are Republicans and 44 are Democrats. But on Election Day, Bush beat Kerry 53 to 47 percent among those voters, doubtless picking up the lion’s share of independent white Catholics.
As we saw with Hispanics, Bush’s success among non-Hispanic Catholics derives from more than social issues. Only 39 percent of the non-Hispanic Catholic category described abortion and gay marriage as “very important” and just 19 percent said those social issues are more important than foreign policy or economic issues. So the appeal of Bush and Republicans to non-Hispanic Catholics, as well as to Hispanics, is broader and deeper than many have speculated.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.