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Mixing religion and politics: Survey reports on faith groups' presidential preferences

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 29, 2008 - To win votes of faith-based groups across the spectrum of beliefs, the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns have hired special faith outreach staff. Candidates' supporters hold house parties and coffees for members of their faith groups to convey the idea is that "lots of people who share your values" support their candidate.

Republicans have worked with conservative and moderate religious leaders for decades. Democrats have worked with black religious leaders and Jewish leaders but few other religious groups.

This year, though, Sen. Barack Obama's camp has been working with various moderate Protestant groups in several states, including Republican-leaning Indiana, and with United Methodists in the swing state of Ohio, according to Joshua DuBois, an Obama campaign operative for religious groups.

The Democrats' new outreach, though, may not change minds, according to a large new survey. Most religious groups are about where they were four years ago in their party preferences.

Party backing showed scant change from 2004 to mid-August, said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron and director of its Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. For the past four presidential races, Green has conducted a highly respected, in-depth National Survey of Religion and Politics. The Bliss scholars follow up after each election to see how various religious groups voted.

The Bliss Institute surveyed 4,017 Americans, 18 or older, in July and August before the two parties' national conventions. The size of the poll gives it a low margin of error -- plus or minus 1.5 percent, Green said. 

"The presidential candidate preferences of the major religion groups in the summer of 2008 closely resembled the patterns at the comparable stage of the 2004 presidential campaign," said Green. "I was surprised by the stability. I made graduate students go back over everything about 20 times to be sure we were not missing something."

Faith groups that preferred incumbent President George W. Bush in 2004 now support Sen. John McCain while faith groups that supported Sen. John Kerry four years ago now support Sen. Barack Obama. Overall, the study found that Obama had 41.9 percent of the potential support; McCain 37.4 percent; and 20.8 percent were undecided.

Still, as both candidates dispatch staff and volunteers to rev up various religious groups, opinions could yet change. Green's survey found evidence of shifts in priorities that could ultimately affect the faith-based vote, with concern about the economy growing.

Green announced the Bliss Institute's findings at the 59th annual meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association in Washington, D.C., in late September.

The stability of opinions does not surprise the Rev. Ed Plants, pastor of Geyer Road Baptist Church in Kirkwood. He's heard on television that Democrats are courting faith groups, but he's not seen evidence of that in this region.

"We have heard people encouraging us to vote, but mostly it's about the same as other elections," he said.

Breakdown of various faith groups

Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ, considered a liberal mainline Protestant denomination. While raised an Episcopalian, McCain has attended a Southern Baptist church since his marriage to Cindy McCain. During this long campaign, both nominees have talked about their faith and freely quoted scripture.

What makes this survey so credible is that it uses belief questions to place respondents into carefully defined religious groups. Quick snapshot surveys often use easy terms like conservative or liberal. That slap-dash style would, for example, likely lump all Lutherans together. In contrast, the Bliss Institute asks enough religion-related questions so it can differentiate, say, Chicago-based Evangelical Lutherans from, say, St. Louis-based, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod members.

While Green found few surprises when comparing different faith groups' reactions to candidates from four years ago, he found a few changes, most slight shifts, in one direction or another.

Jewish respondents dropped away from the Democratic candidate by 16 percent compared to four years ago. Still a majority, 52.5 percent of the Jewish sample, supported Obama, compared to the 69.3 percent who backed Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

Also there was some movement -- more of a nudge than a few steps -- among non-Latino Catholics. McCain did better among what Bliss calls "centrist" non-Latino Catholics with 52.1 percent support compared to Bush's 39 percent four summers ago. But among "traditionalist" non-Latino Catholics, McCain had less support than Bush did in the survey four summers ago.

Obama received his strongest percentage of support from black Protestants with 78.7 percent favoring the Democrat. McCain's greatest strength was with "traditionalist" Evangelical Protestants with 61.8 percent.

Mainline Protestants were divided this summer giving a slight advantage to McCain. Mainline Protestants include those who belong to the Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Christian Reform Church, United Church of Christ, and Presbyterians USA.

Even in a survey as large as this Muslims are too small a sample to report. Their opinions were bundled with Hindus, Buddhists, Shintos, Jains and others in the "Other World Religions" category.

Faith-based groups shift on several issues

In nearly every category, including Evangelicals and Catholics, support for a ban on embryonic stem cell research has slightly decreased. "Traditional" evangelicals are the strongest supporters of the ban with Latino Catholics and "traditionalists" Catholics right behind them.

Green also detected a change in priorities over four years ago. This year, people were more concerned about the economy than foreign policy or social issues.

The only major switch was the decline in approval of the Iraq War. In 2004, 57.7 percent of respondents told Bliss pollsters that the war was justified while 42.4 percent said the war was unjustified.

By this summer, the results were turned virtually upside down: 45.6 respondents said the Iraq war was justified while a majority, 54.4 percent, said it was unjustified.

"Traditionalists" Catholics, black Protestants and atheists-agnostics turned more negatively against the war. Jews, "traditional" evangelical Christians and unaffiliated believers showed the smallest shift in opposing the Iraq War.

As Green worked through the numbers, he said that the stability may reflect deep-seated divisions among America's diverse faith communities.

If that is true, the 2008 election results may be razor close with a "high level of religious polarization." That would make this November's election similar to the 2004 presidential election, he said.

That does not mean that McCain would win. "Obama might win but it would be by a small amount," Green said.

Patricia Rice, a freelance writer in St. Louis, is a former religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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