Nov 10, 2014

Religious right continues to be a force in electoral politics

The religious right is still a powerful force in American politics.

Judging by the exit polls from last week's election, the credit for the Republican's decisive midterm victory looks like it should go to conservative Christians, who got out to vote and overwhelmingly went for Republicans.

White evangelicals made up 26 percent of Tuesday's voters -- more even than in 2004, when white evangelicals made up slightly less than a quarter of the electorate but were credited with giving George W. Bush a second term. Not all of the evangelicals voted Republican, then or now, but most of them did. Nearly 80 percent marked their ballots for GOP candidates on Tuesday.

White Catholics also made a strong showing at the polls and put their weight behind Republicans. Nineteen percent of Tuesday's voters were white Catholics and 60 percent of them voted GOP. This is slightly more than the 2010 election, the last midterms, where white Catholics made up 17 percent of voters and 59 percent of them voted Republican.

Together, white Catholics and white Protestants -- a category that includes evangelicals but also mainliners, Mormons, and non-evangelical conservatives -- make up nearly 60 percent of the vote and more than 60 percent of them voted Republican. This is a solid bloc, and shows the religious right is still dominant in American politics today.

The significance of this bloc is even more noticeable when it comes to specific states:
  • In Arkansas, where Republican Tom Cotton was running for senate against incumbent Mark Pryor, 51 percent of voters were white evangelicals or Catholics. A full 73 percent of them voted for Cotton (despite the fact that Pryor himself is an evangelical and ran campaign ads invoking the Bible).
  • In Kentucky, the percentage of evangelicals in the population has dropped to 32 percent, but they turned out to vote disproportionately. They made up more than half the voters on Tuesday, and 68 percent of them voted for Senator Mitch McConnell over his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes.
  • In North Carolina, white evangelicals made up 40 percent of the electorate and 78 percent of them voted for the Republican Thom Tillis to replace the Democratic Senator Kay Hagin. Tillis won by a tiny margin, with about 47,000 more votes than Hagin. If evangelical support had been down even by 5 percent, Tillis would have lost.
  • In Georgia, where there was another close race for senate, white evangelicals also made a difference. They made up 39 percent of voters and 61 percent of them went for the Republican David Purdue, versus just 12 percent who voted for the Democratic candidate, Michelle Nunn. 
As Sarah Posner wrote in Religion Dispatches, the "religious right spent decades building get-out-the-vote operations and candidate recruitment and training grounds," efforts that have long-term pay-off at the polls. The Faith and Freedom Coalition, run by Ralph Reed, reports it distributed 20 million voter guides to 117,000 churches ahead of this election, and made 10 million get-out-the-vote calls.

These numbers would seem to disprove the narrative about the declining importance of the religious right. Less attention has been given to this bloc as a bloc in recent years, but that doesn't mean it has gone away.