The religious alignment of American politics once set Democratic-leaning Catholics (many of them immigrants) and Southern evangelicals against the Northern Protestants who founded and long dominated the Republican Party. The past few decades have scrambled that alignment, as Southern evangelicals and religiously devout white Catholics have largely realigned with the GOP, while Democrats have offset the losses with the growing population of both the nonwhite (many of them religiously devout) and the nonreligious.
White Protestants, split between evangelicals and mainline denominations, have provided the GOP substantial margins in each election since 1980. The Democratic vote among white Protestants has ranged between 31 and 36 percent (except for 1984 when it sunk to 28 percent). Evangelicals, who represent just over half of white Protestants nationwide, are especially reliable conservatives. To underscore the power of evangelical belief in shaping behavior, consider how powerfully it bends even class divisions. In 2008, McCain beat Obama, 71 percent to 26 percent, among the nearly half of noncollege whites who also identify as evangelicals. But among noncollege whites who don’t identify as evangelicals, Obama drew 50 percent to McCain’s 48 percent. College-educated whites display similar patterns.
White Catholics have recently behaved less predictably than white Protestants. The Republicans hit their high point with white Catholics in 1984 and 1988, when they carried these voters by identical 14-point margins. Clinton won them in 1992 and 1996, but they tilted back narrowly to Bush in 2000, and then decisively in 2004. In 2008, white Catholics gave McCain a slim 52 percent to 47 percent edge over Obama.
In both groups, religious practice, rather than religious belief, increasingly looms as the dividing line. The University of Michigan’s American National Election Studies show little difference during the 1950s and 1960s between the voting preferences of Americans who attended religious services regularly and those who did not; like the class inversion, a religious-attendance gap emerged as cultural issues loomed larger, beginning in the 1970s. Today, the more often voters attend religious services, the more likely they are to vote Republican.
In each of the past three elections, exit polls show, the GOP nominee has defeated the Democrat among white Protestants who regularly attend church (once a week or more) by almost exactly 3-to-1. By contrast, Democrats have attracted two-fifths of white Protestants who don’t regularly attend. Republicans since 2000 have likewise outpolled Democrats 3-to-2 with white Catholics who regularly attend church. But white Catholics who don’t regularly attend church narrowly backed Gore in 2000 and Obama in 2008, and only slightly preferred Bush in between.
Overall, then, Republicans have carried whites who regularly attend church by about 2-to-1 in each of the past three elections. But over that same period, Democrats have averaged 57 percent support among whites who don’t regularly attend church. Similarly, Democrats since 1988 have averaged 61 percent of the vote among whites who declare no religious preference, reaching their contemporary high of 71 percent behind Obama in 2008. In each of the past two elections, Democrats also have amassed at least 80 percent of the vote among minorities with no religious preference. In 2008, voters with no religious preference represented 12 percent of the electorate, slightly more than double their share in 1980 and 1984. For Democrats, the secular are an answered prayer.
Political strategists disagree on how many voters who call themselves independents are really reliable partisans who just don’t want to publicly wear their team’s jersey. But self-identified independents still represent a big enough share of the vote to tip a competitive election. Since 1980, Bush in 2004 was the only candidate to lose independents and win the White House (Gore also won the popular vote while losing them).
Through much of this period, Republicans performed better with independent men than independent women. (Obama, however, narrowly carried both groups in 2008.) Every Democratic nominee since 1980 has run better with college-educated than with noncollege independents. Race and ideology loom as critical factors, too. Democrats have dominated among nonwhite independent voters throughout the period—even during the Reagan landslides. White independents gave the GOP crushing margins during the 1980s, moved slightly toward Clinton in the 1990s (with many detouring to Perot), and have leaned slightly to the GOP since (they preferred McCain over Obama by just 2 percentage points).
Liberal independents have preferred Democrats by at least 3-to-1 in each election since 1988. Conservative independents have provided the GOP nominee comparably emphatic margins in all eight elections.
Independents who describe their ideology as moderate—arguably, the bull’s-eye at the dead center of the electorate—may be a group especially worth watching. Reagan carried them by roughly 20-point margins in his two races. They broke narrowly for George H.W. Bush in 1988 and more substantially for Clinton in his two victories. George W. Bush lost moderate independents by just 3 and 4 percentage points, respectively, in his two races, but they tilted sharply to Obama, providing him an emphatic 16-point edge over McCain.This will likely be one of many groups among which Romney must meet or exceed the second Bush’s performance to overcome Obama—and the ongoing demographic changes that have made the road to the White House even slightly steeper for Republicans than it was in 2008.