Election Numbers Once More

Published February 15, 2001

The Catholic Difference

John Green of the University of Akron may know as much about which Americans vote for which candidates and why as anyone in the country. In a recent seminar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, Dr. Green analyzed the complexities of religion’s impact on the 2000 presidential election. Here are some of Green’s conclusions:

  • Religious affiliation and levels of religious practice mattered more in how Americans voted for president last year than they did in 1996 and 1992.
  • While we live in a “multi-variant world” in which race, class, gender, and ideology all play their roles in voters’ choices, the evidence is overwhelming that more religiously active Americans (those who attend a religious service once a week or more) broke heavily for George Bush in 2000, while less religiously active Americans broke heavily for Al Gore.
  • The one striking exception was among African-Americans, where there was no discernible difference between the more and less religiously active in an overwhelming vote for Gore.
  • Non-Hispanic Catholics were twenty percent of both the Bush and Gore coalitions, and were thus the crucial swing vote in this election, as they have been since the old Catholic-Democratic alliance shattered in 1972.
  • White evangelical Protestants who attend church once a week or more were fully one-third of the Bush coalition, while black Protestants were almost one-fifth of the Gore coalition.
  • There is a newly-identifiable group of American voters, perhaps fifteen percent of the electorate, whom Green identifies as “seculars;” they made up almost one-fifth of the Gore coalition.
  • Votes for Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan were concentrated among the less religiously observant and the “seculars.”
  • Character concerns about President Clinton carried more weight among less religiously active evangelical Protestants than among more religiously active evangelicals (who, presumably, had other reasons for tilting heavily toward Bush).
  • Bush scored considerably higher among more religiously active white evangelical Protestants than Senator Dole had in 1996. Bush also scored higher than Dole among white mainline Protestants (Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, one group of Presbyterians, members of the United Church of Christ).
  • Religiously active non-Hispanic Catholics went for Bush, 57% to 43%. This continued a trend toward the Republican Party among Catholics who attend Mass once a week or more that has been underway throughout the past decade.
  • Less religiously active non-Hispanic Catholics went for Gore, 59-41, continuing a decade-long trend toward the Democrats among this group.
  • Hispanic Catholics went overwhelmingly for Gore, 76-24.
  • Hispanic Protestants were more likely to vote for Bush (33%) than were Hispanic Catholics.
  • Mormons were the most monolithic bloc of religiously affiliated voters: 88% for Bush to 12% for Gore.
  • The now-famous red-and-blue map of America (with Gore voters clustered in the northeast, the industrial Midwest, and the cities of the West Coast, and Bush voters dominating everywhere else) cannot be parsed according to the abortion issue alone. Rather, the red/blue divide seems to be between those with a more traditional approach to a cluster of issues (sexual mores, the family, the state of the culture, the role of government) and those with a more liberal approach.

Toward the end of the seminar, I asked John Green whether it could be said that frequency of religious practice was the single best predictor of voting behavior in the 2000 presidential election, African-Americans excepted. Green, a judicious political scientist, said that it would be inappropriate to talk about a “single” most effective predictor in something as complex as a presidential election. But, he immediately added, frequency of religious practice was one of the most important factors determining voter behavior—and one growing more important all the time.

The lack of attention paid to this faith-and-practice factor by a media focused on gender gaps and racial divides distorts our understanding of the dynamics of American politics. Whether early 21st century America will be closely divided or deeply divided will have a lot to do with how the religiously assertive, the less religiously active, and the seculars interact.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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