But how did the faithful vote? A just completed national survey offers some answers to this question, revealing both old and new patterns. Longstanding political differences among the religious groups undergirded the Bush and Gore vote, but in addition there was an increased polarization among the faithful. Both factors contributed to the closeness of the contest.
The Bush vote was substantially an alliance of more observant white Christians (Protestant and Catholic), led by evangelical Protestants; they were joined by less observant white Protestants. Together these groups made up about three-quarters of the Texas governor's total. In contrast, the Gore vote essentially came from members of minority faith groups, especially black Protestants, plus secular voters and less observant white Christians. In total, these groups accounted for about three out of four of the vice president's votes.
The survey was conducted at the University of Akron as part of a larger project of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and was supported by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. A random sample of adult Americans were interviewed in the spring of 2000 and then re-contacted right after the election. The data were weighted to match the demographic characteristics of the U.S. adult population, and a statistical model was employed to correct for over-reported turnout. These modifications produced more accurate estimates of the vote, but the results were quite comparable to those found in the raw data. The resulting weighted sample size was 2,363, with 1,147 major-party voters; the margin of error was plus or minus 4%. This survey is the third in a series of election studies, and comparisons were made with the 1996 results.
The great diversity of American religious faiths can be captured in two politically relevant ways: by religious tradition and by religious commitment. Four large religious groupings are commonly recognized: (1) white evangelical Protestants, (2) white mainline Protestants, (3) black Protestants, and (4) Roman Catholics. Another large group is (5) the secular population, those not affiliated with organized religion. These groups are listed in the tables at the end of this report, along with (6) Mormons, (7) other Christians (such as Eastern Orthodox, Christian Scientists, and Unitarian/Universalists), (8) Jews, and (9) other non-Christians (including Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus). Although they do not constitute separate religious traditions, (10) Hispanic Protestants and (11) Hispanic Catholics are grouped separately because their voting behavior differs from that of their white counterparts.
Religious traditions influence the vote both by shaping their members' values and by providing them with information on issues. Religious commitment can have an independent impact on the vote as well. For example, regular worship attendees often have more conservative values and issue positions than their less observant co-religionists. They are also more likely to vote, partly because of their greater social involvement and partly because they are easier targets for electioneering.
The impact of religious commitment is represented in the accompanying tables by the division of white Protestants (evangelical and mainline) and Catholics into self-reported regular (once a week or more) worship attendees, called more observant, and less regular (less than once a week) worship attendees, called less observant. Similar patterns obtained for some of the smaller groups, but for others, such as black Protestants and Mormons, regular worship attendance had no significant observable impact on the vote.
The 2000 Presidential Vote
Table 1 reports the two-party presidential vote in 2000 for the fourteen religious groups identified above (the eleven listed groups plus, for three of them, a breakdown into more observant and less observant). Each horizontal row adds up to 100 percent; the total vote for the weighted sample is at the bottom of the table. The very small number of votes for minor-party candidates was excluded for clarity of presentation. (These voters were concentrated among the seculars and the less observant groups.)
Less observant white evangelical and mainline Protestants resembled each other, backing Bush by 55 and 57 percent, respectively. In 1996, Dole and Clinton nearly tied among these voters (some surveys showed the Democrats prevailing by a small margin).
Catholics were more evenly divided than evangelicals or mainline Protestants. The more observant supported Bush with 57 percent of their vote, while the less observant backed Gore with 59 percent. These margins were greater than in 1996, when, similarly, the Republicans won the former and the Democrats the latter. In 2000 the Democrats won 76 percent of the Hispanic Catholic vote, roughly the same proportion as in the previous election.
Black Protestants were the strongest Democratic group, giving Gore 96 percent of their votes. This margin differed little from 1996, but increased turnout benefited the Democrats. Gore also won Hispanic Protestants with 67 percent, a gain for the Democrats over 1996, despite George W. Bush's purported appeal to this group.
Jews were Gore's second strongest group at 77 percent. However, this figure may actually represent a decline from the comparable Democratic figure in 1996, despite the presence on the ticket of Joseph Lieberman, the first Jewish vice presidential nominee. In addition, Gore received strong support from other Christians (72 percent) and non-Christians (80 percent). Here, too, there appears to have been a decline compared to 1996. Finally, secular voters strongly backed Gore with 65 percent, a figure quite similar to their vote for Bill Clinton four years earlier.
Table 2 reports these same data from a different perspective: as a percentage of each candidate's total vote. Vertical columns add up to 100 percent. These figures show the relative weight of each religious group among the Bush and Gore voters (and in the third column, the electorate at large).
The first column looks at the religious composition of the Bush vote. More observant white evangelical Protestants were by far the most important group, accounting for almost one-third of the total. Less observant evangelicals made a more modest contribution of 8 percent. Together these evangelicals provided fully two-fifths of Bush's popular vote.
Each mainline white Protestant group (more observant, less observant) accounted for about one-tenth of the Bush vote; together, then, they made up one-fifth of the total. White Catholics also made up one-fifth of the Bush column, with the more observant providing one-eighth and the less observant about one-twelfth.
Seculars contributed only one-tenth of the Bush vote,and all the remaining groups combined for one-twelfth. Note, however, the relative importance of Mormons: their three percent was equal to the combined Bush vote from black Protestants and both Hispanic groups.
Looked at another way, evangelicals were the dominant group in the Republican presidential vote. Only a combining of the Bush votes from mainline Protestants and from Catholics equals the support provided by evangelicals. Regular church attendees were also dominant: all the more observant white Christians combined made up more than one-half of Bush's votes, while the less observant white Christians together made up about half as much, about one-quarter.
The religious composition of the Gore vote in the second column of Table 2 presents a sharp contrast. Black Protestants and seculars were the largest Democratic constituencies, each accounting for about one-fifth of the total. Jews made up one-twentieth, and all the other smaller groups (Hispanics, other Christians, and other non-Christians) combined for about one-twelfth of the Gore total.
To look at the results another way, there was no dominant religious group in the Democratic presidential vote. All the less observant white Christians added up to one-quarter of the total, a little more than either black Protestants or seculars. And more observant white Christians accounted for one-fifth of the Gore total, equaling the contribution of black Protestants and of seculars.
The Faithful Mattered
These findings persist even when other important demographic factors such as gender, income, and education are taken into account, which confirms the basic religious underpinnings of the presidential vote. Bush and Gore successfully mobilized the core religious constituencies of their parties, and in the process further polarized the faithful.
The Republicans' deft handling of traditional moral issues, from abortion to presidential scandals, helped attract more observant white Christians, especially evangelical Protestants, while at the same time gaining support among less observant white Protestants. But the narrowness of this religious alliance nearly cost Bush the election: he lost New Mexico, Oregon, Iowa, and Wisconsin by tiny margins-and faced a contested result in Florida. Indeed, if Bush had done as well as Bob Dole among black Protestants and Hispanics, he could have won the popular as well as the electoral vote.
In contrast, the Democrats used other moral questions, including appeals to racial, environmental, and social justice, to rouse key groups, including black Protestants, seculars, and less observant white Christians. But here, too, the limitations of Gore's religious coalition created problems. Partly because of his weakness among white Protestants, Gore lost his home state of Tennessee, Bill Clinton's Arkansas, and the Democratic stronghold of West Virginia. Victory in any of these states would have given Gore a majority in the Electoral College, no matter how the contested ballots in Florida were resolved.
Thus, old patterns of religious group voting and a new polarization of the faithful help explain the closeness of the 2000 election. America's many faiths were part of the divisions revealed at the ballot box, reflecting the unusual prominence of religion in the campaign.