Why the Democrats don't need evangelicals

The 2008 election was starkly divided between voters in the most religious states and those in the least, but Barack Obama won anyway.

By Vincent Rossmeier

Published February 4, 2009 4:45PM (EST)

Leading up to the 2008 presidential campaign, many pundits were speculating that the so-called "God-gap" would hinder Democrats' chances at the polls. As the story line went, Democrats had to figure out a way to attract the vote of evangelical Christians or risk suffering the fate of John Kerry in 2004.

Yet it didn't turn out that way. Obama won despite the fact that evangelicals didn't suddenly become "soulless" liberals: 73 percent of evangelicals voted for John McCain in 2008, which is just shy of the 79 percent of evangelicals who voted for Bush in 2004.

Long story short, Obama didn't need the evangelical vote to win. Once he became the Democratic presidential nominee and the 2008 campaign got into full swing, the electoral strength of evangelical voters received far less media attention than it did during former president George W. Bush's reelection bid. It was the religion of Barack Obama and not the religion of voters that became one of the main political narratives of the campaign.

Comparing a new Gallup analysis on religiosity by state to the results of the 2008 presidential election seems to confirm the dwindling power of the religious right politically. The states Gallup found to be the most religious went overwhelmingly for McCain -- but Obama still prevailed nationally.

The Gallup study confirms that evangelicals can't currently dictate election results. Gallup released an analysis on January 28th that ranked the states in order from least religious to most religious. The analysis found the residents of Mississippi and Alabama are the most religious, while those of Vermont and New Hampshire are the least. Based on the findings, religiosity appears to be geographically clustered in the US: The top eight most religious states are all located in the South, while six of the top ten least religious states are located in New England.

But the results become even more interesting when examined from the perspective of the 2008 presidential election. Ten of the top eleven most religious states voted for McCain; nine of the top ten least religious states opted for Obama.

What else do the most religious states all have in common? Overall, 26 percent of US residents are evangelical. Gallup's top eleven most religious states all have a concentration of evangelicals that exceeds that number. The New York Times also found that counties with a high percentage of Southern Baptists heavily supported McCain.

This shouldn't be too much of a surprise, as 54 percent of Protestants voted for McCain, while Obama won among Catholics, Jews and all other faiths (along with the religiously unaffiliated). But the Gallup poll is a stark visual of the link between the isolated geographical and religious appeal of Republicans at present.

Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Democratic Party John Mccain R-ariz. Religion Republican Party