The 2008 U.S. election was supposed to be different than the previous presidential races, at least when it came to religion and politics.
This was the case for the Democrats especially, as the party made early strides to engage religious, even evangelical voters, and close the “faith gap”. Meanwhile, 2008 was the year in which the “new evangelicals” would make their political debut, stressing conciliatory issues, such as the environment, rather than rehashing the culture wars. But according to new polls and seasoned observers, the 2008 election may turn out to be very similar to the contentious 2004 election.
At the mid-September meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association in Washington, DC, which RW attended, religion and politics specialist John Green presented a new survey showing that the basic patterns set in 2004 still hold: evangelicals are the most supportive of McCain, just as they were of George W. Bush, and Barack Obama has made few inroads into the evangelical community. The political configurations of mainline, Catholic and non-affiliated Americans are also similar to 2004. But some surprising changes were revealed in the survey, which was conducted in the summer of 2008.
For one thing, Hispanic Catholics and Protestants swerved back to a Democratic preference after showing some Republican sympathy in 2004. There was also a shift among all respondents toward stressing economic rather than social and foreign policy issues, especially among “traditionalist Catholic” voters. In fact, it is the way in which these pressing economic matters can be addressed by religious values that may be decisive for voters from many faith groups, Green added. Since Green found, somewhat to his surprise, that Obama had as little impact among evangelicals as John Kerry had in the 2004 election in his summer poll, than it might be expected that the selection of fellow evangelical Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate would solidify that pattern.
A new survey by the Pew Research Center released during the conference does show that, among all groups, it was the evangelicals who became the most favorable toward McCain as a result of the Palin selection. The percentage of voters saying that they back McCain strongly climbed from 17 percent in August to 25 percent currently, with the strongest growth being among white evangelical Protestants and Catholics. In fact, 27 percent of white evangelical supporters of McCain say they almost wish Palin could be the presidential nominee.
Meanwhile, Amy Sullivan, a writer for Time magazine, had to revise her optimistic view of young evangelicals serving as a Democratic vanguard. Sullivan, who has written books and advised candidates on the evangelical political change, admitted at the conference that events since last summer, especially starting with the conventions, sent many evangelical voters back to the 2004 mindset. The significant drop in Republican identification among young evangelicals, declining from 52 percent in 2004 to 40 percent in 2008, may have meant that they were becoming independent or undecided rather than going to Obama.
Even before the Republican convention, there were signs of retrenchment among evangelicals. Sullivan said that Rick Warren, seen as an important representative of the new centrist evangelicals, appeared to pull back from his advocacy of non-culture war issues (the environment, world poverty) during his forum where he interviewed Obama and McCain. Sullivan added that Warren had come under pressure and criticism from more conservative evangelicals to return to a focus on culture war issues, such as abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research. On the Democratic side, there has been a similar movement of retrenchment.
The attempt to moderate pro-choice language at the Democratic convention—seen in a minor change to the party’s platform to work to prevent unwanted pregnancies—has been rolled back as significant elements in the party have attacked the prolife policies of McCain and Palin. Sullivan concluded that while Obama hired religion advisors, his campaign never gave them many resources on the ground; since the convention, the campaign has “cut the budget in their religious outreach.” If Democrats lose in November, there will be pressure to further downplay the appeal to religious voters, Sullivan speculates.