Moral values are replacing money as a key predictor of a person's vote. For decades, the best way to predict peoples' voting behavior - other than their race, which remains the most reliable indicator - was their income and educational background. It used to be the more money or education people had, the more they voted Republican. No longer. How often one attends religious services has replaced money, schooling, age and sex as the best way to predict a person's vote. The data clearly suggests that among white voters, the more often you go to church, the more likely you are to consider yourself conservative; the more you go to church, the more you worry about an expanding role for government. And the more you go to church, the more likely you vote Republican. Those who fill the pews less often or not at all are more likely to see a larger governmental role and vote Democratic. "Church attendance is not the most powerful predictor, but it is" statistically the most valid, said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. Examining the 2000 election results and comparing them with the last few presidential contests finds a clear pattern that cuts against the historical grain - Republicans have shown increasing strength among voters in less affluent communities. The Democratic gains have been among the more affluent and in upscale communities, many of which have lower church attendance than do more working and lower-middle-class areas. It is unclear whether these trends would hold in the face of an economic downturn. According to an 2000 election exit poll conducted by the Voter News Service for the television networks and The Associated Press, 42 percent of voters said they attended church at least once a week. Of that segment, roughly 60 percent voted for George W. Bush, and virtually all the rest - bolstered by religious African-Americans and Latinos - voted for Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate.
However, Green added a cautionary note to this data. As predictor of voting behavior, he said, "church attendance does not have the same dramatic effect among mainline Protestants as it has among evangelicals." An equal number of the National Election Service's total sample, 42 percent, said they seldom or never attended church. Of this secular group, the breakdown was reversed: Gore got almost three out of five; Bush the rest. Among the nine percent of voters in this group who listed no religious preference, Gore held a 2-1 advantage. Fourteen percent of the total sample said they attended religious services monthly. Gore held a slight lead over that group. The survey of more than 13,000 voters leaving the polls on Election Day had margin of error of about 1 percent. "Church attendance is connected. There are two things that increase church attendance, if you are married and if you are married with children and both of those factors are indications of Republican voting," said Ed Goeas, a Washington, D.C.-based pollster who works for Republican candidates. "Quite frankly, this is more indicative of party leaning than what has been talked about most in the last decade, which is the gender gap." The gender gap refers to the tendency of women to be more likely than men to vote Democratic and vice versa. In the 2000 election, for instance, Bush won 53 percent of male votes, but only 43 percent of female votes. Gore won 54 percent of women, but only 42 percent of men. Other historical measures showed little salience. There was no statistical difference between Bush and Gore among those with or without college educations, and virtually none based on age of the voters. The differences among various income groups were smaller than they were between those who were regular churchgoers and those who were not.
The religious division of voters has a clear geographic overlay, similar but more subtle than the red and blue division of states on election-night television screens. That is, there are greater concentrations of people who say they are religious in the Sunbelt and rural areas of the Midwest, which are areas in which Bush did well last year. More people who claim they are secular are concentrated in the urban Northeast, West Coast and college communities and major metropolitan areas scattered across the country - which were the pockets of Gore's strength.Economics colors the division, as well, and they are changing the complexion of the two political parties. In poorer counties in states such as Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, which once formed the bedrock of Democratic support, voters have been turning toward the GOP. This shift help give the election to Bush in 2000. These voters are also the bedrock of evangelical Christianity. In 2000, a wider collection of social issues came into play, said Gary Jacobson, professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego. "In addition to religion, you had an overlay of other issues, like gun control," he said. "It's easier for a relatively poor social-conservative person to vote for a Republican, rather than a Democrat, when economics are not at the center of the politic agenda - which only happens in times of economic prosperity." By contrast, he said, in 1992 people in these states were probably more concerned about jobs and economic growth and thus were more likely to vote Democratic, unlike 2000. "This was an election in which the cultural dimension was really strong, and the economic dimension was relatively less important, which was a consequence of prosperity," said Jacobson, author of The Politics of Congressional Elections. There is no guarantee, he said, that these voters would stay with the Republicans if the economy went into a prolonged downturn. At the same time, poorer voters have been voting for the GOP, in some of the most affluent - and traditionally Republican - counties, especially in California, voters are turning toward the Democrats. In the 2000 election, voters earning more than $50,000 annually voted for the GOP by a shrinking margin of 54-43, according to 2000 exit polls. These voters, who are also more educated, tend to be members of mainline Christian denominations, or non-churchgoers. In 1988, the exit polls showed those with incomes of $50,000 or more voted Republican for president by a 25-point margin. This trend will continue, Jacobson said, "as long as the Democratic Party is perceived as the `New Democratic,' Clinton Democratic Party, which is socially moderate to liberal, and economically moderate." The Democratic Party "will remain attractive to upscale voters whose economic interests don't appear to be threatened by centrist Democrats, and who reject the social conservatism of the Christian Right segment of the Republican Party," he said.
"Most of the those who show up every week are deeply religious people, because church attendance is so highly correlative with other measures of religious commitment," he said.