How powerful the evangelical vote?


Geraldine Sealey
November 8, 2004 9:43PM (UTC)

Karl Rove is credited, or blamed, as it were, for every crafty political move on his side of the political spectrum -- including the mobilization of evangelical voters that helped re-elect George W. Bush. But the Washington Post today suggests that while Rove may have made clear his wish to see evangelicals galvanized in support of Bush, these religious voters were way ahead of him and appear to have organized themselves, especially around the issue of same-sex marriage. "The untold story of the 2004 election, according to national religious leaders and grass-roots activists, is that evangelical Christian groups were often more aggressive and sometimes better organized on the ground than the Bush campaign. The White House struggled to stay abreast of the Christian right and consulted with the movement's leaders in weekly conference calls. But in many respects, Christian activists led the charge that GOP operatives followed and capitalized upon."

The Post also describes how thousands of clergy received guidelines from the conservative American Center for Law and Justice for how to talk politics from the pulpit without running afoul of tax laws. "Such entreaties appear to have worked. [Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for ACLJ] said he believes that thousands of clergy members gave sermons about the election, and that many went further than they ever had before. The Rev. Rick Warren, author of the best-selling 'The Purpose Driven Life' and one of the most influential ministers in the country, sent a letter to 136,000 fellow pastors urging them to compare the candidates' positions on five 'non-negotiable' issues: abortion, stem cell research, same-sex marriage, human cloning and euthanasia."

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While the importance of the evangelical turnout to Bush's victory is now part of the post-election conventional wisdom, the numbers are not quite conclusive. Exit polls posed the question: "Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?" Twenty-three percent of voters answered yes. Unhelpfully, the comparable question asked in 2000 was "Do you consider yourself part of the conservative Christian political movement, also known as the religious right?" Fourteen percent answered yes, but since the 2004 language seems to cover a broader portion of the electorate anyway, it's difficult to gauge from these questions how much larger the evangelical vote was in 2004. The Post also points out that the percentage of voters who said they attend church more than once a week grew from 14 to 16 percent, which may indicate a more substantial religious vote.

However, over at Donkey Rising, Alan Abramowitz pokes a hole in the theory that strongly religious voters put Bush over the top. While the percentage of voters attending services more than weekly rose by 2 points, the percentage attending every week dropped by 2 points and the percentage never attending rose by 1 point, Abramowitz points out. "More importantly, between 2000 and 2004, President Bush's largest gains occurred among less religious voters, not among more religious voters Among those attending services a few times a month, support for Bush rose by 4 points, from 46 percent to 50 percent, among those attending only a few times a year, support for Bush rose by 3 points, from 42 percent to 45 percent, and among those never attending services, support for Bush rose by 4 points, from 32 percent to 36 percent. Bottom line: the President made gains across the board among voters, regardless of their degree of religious commitment but he made his largest gains among less religious voters."


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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