Why this happened has a lot to do with the South's decades-long drift away from the Democratic Party, but a look at the voting patterns in these two states, where white Protestants dominate, also tells us a lot about how religion, and the allied issue of character, mattered in the election.
The religious right's potential to influence the vote had always gone unrealized in Arkansas, but this year the character issue seems to have been critical in rousing its members in that state, where the religious right represents 30% of the total electorate. Four years ago, this group supported favorite son Clinton 58% to 32, but this year they switched to Bush by 75% to 23%. This switch accounted for 13 of the 14 points the GOP gained from '96 to 2000.
Meanwhile, Gore also lost some support among black Protestants in Arkansas. Though the African-American turnout was about the same (10% of the total in 2000 and 9% in 1996), they voted 90% for Clinton and only 84% for Gore.
A similar though less dramatic pattern held in Tennessee. The religious right was about the same percentage of the electorate (27% in 2000, 26% in 1996), but it became more Republican, rising to 78% for Bush from 63% for Dole. This gain accounts for 4 of the 5 points Bush gained over the Republican vote in 1996.
Black Protestants were more loyal to Gore in his home state. Turnout increased from 13% to 16% and support from 90% to 92%.
The religious right does help explain the Bush gains. In Michigan, those identifying themselves as "religious right" went from 15% to 20% of the electorate, while the level of GOP support stayed the same (67% in 1996 and 68% in 2000). At least three points of Bush's gains, then, were due to religious-right voters.
In Reagan-Democrat country, Bush also made gains among Catholics, the same socially conservative voters that stunned the Democrats in 1980 by going Republican. In 2000, Bush received 52% of the white Catholic vote, outscoring Dole by 10 points, while the Dems' support among Catholics essentially stayed steady since '96. That's another 3 faith-based points for Bush. (Bush also increased his support among other white Protestants, also by about 3 points.)
Gore made some gains of his own. Black Protestant turnout rose to 11% from 9% in 1996, and, more important, the percentage of black Protestants voting Democratic swelled from 82% in 1996 to 91% this year. The Democrat was also bolstered by the secular vote, which increased from 9% to 11% of the electorate, and increased its support for the Democrats, 70% in 2000 compared with 63% in 1996.
The religious right was also at work in Washington. While that group's turnout stayed about the same (13% in 2000, 14% in 1996), their support for Bush increased sharply, from 67% in 1996 to 81% in 2000. Bush made gains among other white Protestants as well.
Gore held on to Washington's Catholics (54% Democratic in 1996, 53% in 2000) and won the state with the help of secular voters as well, who showed a modest increases in turnout. (Black Protestants, strongly Democratic in both elections, make up only 2% of the state's electorate.)
In short, the religious right wasn't the whole story down south or up north, but they came through for Bush in states that not only wounded Gore's pride but became critical in holding the vice president off on election night.