Moral issues are dramatically less important this year than in previous years – even among the most religiously observant voters, according to the 2008 edition of the Twelve Tribes of American Politics.

Just 13% listed social issues first, half the number who did in the summer of 2004. 61% listed the economy first compared to 32% in 2004.

The Twelve Tribes were introduced in 2004 as a collaboration between Beliefnet and John Green of the Bliss Institute at University of Akron, based on the National Surveys of Religion and Politics. The premise: most political reporting acted as if there were two groups – the Religious Right and Everyone Else. So we crafted a new set of groupings, inspired by the twelve tribes of Biblical Israel, but formed around similarities in religious beliefs and practice. (More on the methodology here).

The 2008 Twelve Tribes survey, conducted from June-August, also found:
  • A massive shift among Latino Protestants is what has fueled the hugely important move of Hispanics to the Democratic Party (more).
  • The centrist Tribes – Convertible Catholics, Whitebread Protestants and Moderate Evangelicals – have moved to the left on some social issues but have become more suspicious of government spending programs. Republicans remain strong with these groups (more).
  • Much more.
Click here for the McCain-Obama breakdown, the full survey results, the methodology or Steven Waldman's full analysis.

Percent of voting-age population: 12.9%

Who are they: Highly orthodox white evangelical Protestants: 80% believe the Bible is literally true; 84% report attending worship once a week or more; 53% live in the South.

sarah palin

  • Summer 2004: Conservative: 66%, Moderate: 25%, Liberal: 9%.
  • Summer 2008: Conservative: 71%, Moderate: 23%, Liberal: 5%
  • Summer 2004: Republican: 71%, Independent: 10%, Democratic: 20%.
  • Summer 2008: Republican: 71%, Independent: 11%, Democratic: 18%

Candidate Preference:
  • November 2004: Bush: 88%, Kerry: 12%.
  • Summer 2008: McCain: 71%, Obama: 19%, undecided: 11%
Political trend: Strongly Republican and getting more so each year, the Religious Right is solidly behind McCain, but not to the degree it was behind George W. Bush in ‘04. Last time 88% of the Religious Right voted for Bush, accounting for 26% of his total votes in the election.

What they care about: Compared to other groups, more likely to care about cultural issues (36% compared to 13% nationally) but even they have placed economics as a much higher priority. Now 42% list the economy as the top issue; in 2004, 18% did. The Christian right also sees a big role for religion politics, with three quarters opposing the idea that religion should stay out of politics. At the same time, their conservative positions on the social issues are virtually unchanged since 2004: 83% are pro-life and 86% support only traditional marriage. They also support small government. Half oppose the idea of more government services, with just 19% saying there should be more. And just 41% favor more environmental regulations if it means adverse economic news, a drop from 2004, when more than half favored such regulations. About three quarters still feel the war in Iraq was justified, more than any other group.

Percent of voting-age population: 11.3%

Who are they: Conservative Catholics and conservative mainline Protestants, Latter-day Saints, and other smaller groups. Less orthodox than the Religious Right (37% are biblical literalists) and more theologically diverse. But they are regular churchgoers (Nearly 80% report attending worship service weekly or more often).


mitt romney
  • Summer 2004: Conservative: 50%, Moderate: 41%, Liberal: 10%.
  • Summer 2008: Conservative: 53%, Moderate: 39%, Liberal: 8%
  • Summer 2004: Republican: 54%, Independent: 29%, Democratic: 17%.
  • Summer 2008: Republican: 56%, Independent: 13%, Democratic: 31%

Candidate Preference:
  • November 2004: Bush: 72%, Kerry: 28%.
  • Summer 2008: McCain: 56%, Obama: 25%, undecided: 19%
Political trend: Stable in size, this group is steadily becoming more Republican. 72% voted for Bush, making up 20% of his total vote. Many appear to be waiting for the Arizona senator to close the deal; one in five is undecided.

What they care about: Like the Religious Right, conservative on social issues--75% are pro-life, a significant uptick from four years ago. 65% back traditional marriage, something of a drop from ’04. . But half as many say social issues are most important as said so in 2004. They support churches being active in politics, but not by the overwhelming majority that Christian Right members do. And more than half supporting environmental regulations, even if it means higher prices and job losses.

Percent of voting-age population: 9.2%

Who are they: No, it's not an oxymoron: these white evangelical Protestants hold less orthodox religious beliefs (45% are biblical literalists) and don’t show up in church quite as often as the "religious right" (36% go weekly or more often), but they belong to evangelical churches and regard themselves as born-again Christians. Nearly half live in the South.

rick warren

  • Summer 2004: Conservative: 48%, Moderate: 36%, Liberal: 16%.
  • Summer 2008: Conservative: 38%, Moderate: 48%, Liberal: 14%
  • Summer 2004: Republican: 47%, Independent: 22%, Democratic: 31%.
  • Summer 2008: Republican: 45%, Independent: 18%, Democratic: 37%

Candidate Preference:
  • November 2004: Bush: 64%, Kerry: 36%.
  • Summer 2008: McCain: 47%, Obama: 27%, undecided: 26%
Political Trend: Bill Clinton did well with this group in the 1990s, but Bush bested Gore in 2000 and 2004, when they accounted for11 percent of Bush backers. The selection of Sarah Palin and Obama’s recent emphasis of his strict pro-choice position may have sent more support McCain’s way.

What they care about: Not as concerned about cultural rot as their conservative evangelical brethren, they’re more evenly split into the pro-choice and pro-life camps and are slightly more pro-choice than they were four years ago. But only 10% say social issues are most important in this election, compared to 25% who said that in ’04. They place a greater emphasis on economic issues, with two thirds saying such concerns are most important in this election, a nearly 30 percentage point increase over 2004. But moderate evangelicals are only slightly more inclined than the Christian Right to support more government services. They’re much less inclined to say the Iraq war was justified, though more than half say it was.

Percent of voting-age population: 7.3%


john mccain
Who are they: The core members of the Protestant "mainline" churches-- United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church in the USA, American Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, and so forth--that once dominated the American religious landscape. About one-quarter report regular church attendance and just 24% are biblical literalists; 40% agree that "all the world's great religious are equally true and good."

  • Summer 2004: Conservative: 37%, Moderate: 44%, Liberal: 20%.
  • Summer 2008: Conservative: 41%, Moderate: 43%, Liberal: 16%
  • Summer 2004: Republican: 46%, Independent: 21%, Democratic: 33%.
  • Summer 2008: Republican: 46%, Independent: 15%, Democratic: 39%
Candidate Preference:
  • November 2004: Bush: 58%, Kerry: 42.
  • Summer 2008: McCain: 48%, Obama: 31%, undecided: 21%
Political trend: This group is shrinking in size and becoming more politically moderate and less Republican. But Bush still won them in 2000 and 2004 and McCain is hanging on to them so far, too: just under half say they support him, while around a third back Obama.

What they care about: They don't much like the Republican Party's emphasis on conservative social issues: they're mostly pro-choice and favor civil unions or same-sex marriage. More than half say the church should stay out of politics, a significant upswing since 2004. But what they care most about is economics--68% give top priority to economic matters--and there they tend to be more conservative. They’re pro-environment, but a growing number oppose more environmental regulation if it means higher taxes or job loss. Like the rest of the tribes, they’re placing considerably less emphasis on foreign policy issues than in 2004. A majority say the Iraq war was justified, but nearly half also now say the U.S. should mind its own business in international affairs, a marked increase from four years ago.

Percent of voting-age population: 8.4%

Who are they: The core of the white Catholic community, they outnumber conservative Catholics. Moderate in practice (39% claim to attend worship weekly). 51% agree that "all the world's great religions are equally true and good." The vast majority live in the Northeast and Midwest.

  • Joe Biden
  • Maria Shriver
  • Arnold Schwartzenegger
  • Kathleen Sebelius

  • Summer 2004: Conservative: 29%, Moderate: 49%, Liberal: 22%.
  • Summer 2008: Conservative: 38%, Moderate: 45%, Liberal: 17%
  • Summer 2004: Republican: 34%, Independent: 20%, Democratic: 47%.
  • Summer 2008: Republican: 42%, Independent: 17%, Democrat: 41%

Candidate Preference:
  • November 2004: Bush: 55%, Kerry: 45%.
  • Summer 2008: McCain: 49%, Obama: 35%, undecided: 17%
Political Trend: The quintessential swing vote. Clinton edged out Bush senior, Bush junior edged out Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. So far McCain is out-performing Obama with this group: about half support him,, a third back Obama, and the rest are undecided.

What they care about: Nearly two thirds give top priority to economic issues, with a special emphasis on liberal social welfare policy, though they’re shifting rightward on the question of government services, with just 27% supporting more. To the dismay of the Catholic Church, more than half are pro-choice. A clear majority favor civil unions or gay marriage, a turnaround from 2004, when most supported traditional marriage. Many also part company with their church on the Iraq war, which the Vatican opposed from the start; most convertible Catholics still say it was justified.

Percent of voting-age population: 12.7%

Who are they: Theologically liberal Catholics, mainline and evangelical Protestants. Less orthodox (only 5% say the Bible is literally true) church-bound (about one-quarter report weekly worship attendance) and pluralistic in their beliefs (two-thirds agree that "all the world's great religious are equally true and good".)

  • Jim Wallis
  • Helen Prejean
  • Gene Robinson
  • Martin Sheen
  • Summer 2004: Conservative: 21%, Moderate: 50%, Liberal: 30%
  • Summer 2008: Conservative: 20%, Moderate: 49%, Liberal: 32%
  • Summer 2004: Republican 31%, Independent: 18%, Democratic: 51%.
  • Summer 2008: Republican: 22%, Independent: 14%, Democratic: 63%

Candidate Preference:
  • November 2004: Bush: 30%, Kerry: 70%.
  • Summer 2008: McCain: 26%, Obama: 56%, undecided: 19%
Political trend: More visible than in previous years, the Religious Left is becoming more reliably Democratic. In 2004, 51% said they were Democrats, now 63% do. On election day in 2004, 70% voted for Kerry, making up 21% of his total vote, while 30% voted for Bush. As of summer 2008, 56% supported Obama, while 26% backed McCain.

What they care about: Liberal on most everything.78% are pro-choice on abortion and just 21% support traditional marriage. Two thirds say the war in Iraq was unjustified, up from just over half in 2004.. Two thirds want strict environmental regulations even if it means higher prices and fewer jobs. An overwhelming majority say the economy is their top political concern, but the Religious Left is also more focused on foreign policy than the rest of the electorate. Two thirds also want churches and other religious institutions to stay out of politics.

Percent of voting-age population: 5.6%

Who they are: Most report spiritual beliefs, like belief in God and some kind of life after death--but they don't much like houses of worship or organized religion. They report no formal religious affiliation, tend to reject a literal interpretation of the Bible, and mostly report seldom or never attending worship services. 40% are under age 35.

  • Summer 2004: Conservative: 26%, Moderate: 50%, Liberal: 25%.
  • Summer 2008: Conservative: 37%, Moderate: 46%, Liberal: 17%
  • Summer 2004: Republican 28%, Independent: 49%, Democratic: 35%.
  • Summer 2008: Republican: 33%, Independent: 25%, Democratic: 43%

Candidate Preference:
  • November 2004: Bush 37%, Kerry 63%.
  • Summer 2008: McCain: 27%, Obama: 38%, undecided: 35%
Political Trend: Growing in numbers but politically divided, the Spiritual But Not Religious group is currently the most undecided of any of the tribes—35% say they don’t know who they’ll support. The rest break heavily for Obama, in line with their performance in 2004, when 63% backed Kerry

What they care about: An eclectic mix. They're split on abortion rights, gay unions, and on whether the Iraq war was justified. But no tribe is more concerned about the economy—nearly three quarters say that’s their top issue in this election. More than 60% say churches should stay out politics, a roughly 10-point increase over 2004.

Percent of voting-age population: 10.1%

Who they are: Non-religious, atheists, and agnostics. They don’t believe the Bible is literally true, but 44% agree that "all the world's great religious are equally true and good". More than four in ten are under 35.


  • Summer 2004: Conservative: 17%, Moderate: 48%, Liberal: 35%.
  • Summer 2008: Conservative: 12%, Moderate: 43%, Liberal: 45%
  • Summer 2004: Republican: 26%, Independent: 27%, Democratic: 47%.
  • Summer 2008: Republican: 17%, Independent 27%, Democratic: 56%

Candidate Preference:
  • November 2004: Bush: 74%, Kerry: 26%.
  • Summer 2008: McCain: 18%, Obama: 56%, undecided: 26%
Political trend: This bloc has been growing in size and becoming more Democratic. 74% of Seculars voted for Kerry, accounting for 16% of his total vote, while 26% voted for Bush. 56% support Obama, about three times as many as support McCain, but seculars also have high numbers of undecideds.

What they care about: Thegroup that is most uncomfortable when candidates talk about their personal faith. Nearly three quarters want organized religion out of politics. Very liberal on social issues: 87%are pro-choice and 63% favor same-sex marriage, with another 20% supporting civil unions. Liberal on foreign policy (ardently against the Iraq war), and moderate on economics (though very pro-environmental regulation). They were much more concerned about foreign policy than most of the other tribes four years ago, but are now as concerned about the economy as all other groups.

Percent of voting-age population: 9.6%

Who they are: Majority Catholic, but with a large Protestant minority. Fairly orthodox in practice (Almost half report attending worship once a week or more) though less so in belief (37% of the Protestants are biblical literalists).


  • Summer 2004: Conservative: 28%, Moderate: 45%, Liberal: 27%.
  • Summer 2008: Conservative: 34%, Moderate: 34%, Liberal: 32%
  • Summer 2004: Republican: 24%, Independent: 22%, Democratic: 54%.
  • Summer 2008: Republican: 20%, Independent: 18%, Democratic: 62%

Candidate Preference:
  • November 2004: Bush 45%, Kerry 55%.
  • Summer 2008: McCain: 23%, Obama: 60%, undecided: 17%
Political trend: Rapidly growing in size and shifting sharply in the Democratic direction. In 2004, Bush won 45% of Latinos. Now Obama has a better than two-to-one lead. The big change has been driven largely by Hispanic Protestants – often Pentecostal and Evangelical. As of this summer, 33% of Latino Protestants were for McCain, 48% for Obama and 18% undecided. By comparison, at this point in 2004 Bush had 50%, Kerry had 26% and 24% were undecided. And on Election Day it was 63% Bush, 37%.

What they care about: Most analysts believe that the perceived antagonism of Republicans to immigration has turned many Latinos toward the Democrats. In the last election, they voted Republican in record numbers in part because they were conservative on social issues. In many ways, they still are: a sizable majority are pro life and favor traditional marriage. But the social issues are looming less important this year. 65% want churches out of politics, a 25 point surge since 2004. That year, nearly one in three said social issues were most important; now it’s about one in eight.. And they’re liberal on the role of government, with 40% saying they want more government services. In addition, Latinos turned aggressively against the war. 63% say it was not justified and 60% say the U.S. should mind its own business internationally, a 50% spike from 2004. Latinos are also growing greener, with 65-percent favoring more environmental regulation despite the probable economic toll.

Percent of voting-age population: 1.5%

Who they are: Common cultural identity mixed with diverse religious beliefs. Just 8% say the Bible is literally true. Almost half live in the Northeast.


  • Al Franken
  • Joe Lieberman
  • Barbra Streisand
  • Mike Bloomberg
  • Summer 2004: Conservative: 19%, Moderate: 36%, Liberal: 46%.
  • Summer 2008: Conservative: 19%, Moderate: 34%, Liberal: 48%
  • Summer 2004: Republican: 21%, Independent: 11%, Democratic: 68%.
  • Summer 2008: Republicans: 17%, Independents: 19%, Democrats: 64%

Candidate Preference:
  • November 2004: Bush 27%, Kerry 73%.
  • Summer 2008: McCain: 23%, Obama: 52%, undecided: 25%
Political Trend: A strong Democratic group, though Republicans like Bush and McCain have tried to break the Democratic lock on Jewish voters.73% voted for Kerry. This time, 53-percent, with the rest about evenly split between the McCain and undecided columns.

What they care about: The group that puts the most emphasis on foreign policy, with only non-Christians coming close to matching the 42% of Jews who say it’s their top priority this year. Even so, most say the economy is their foremost concern, roughly three times as many as said so in 2004. Only secular voters are more pro-choice, and Jews are among the groups most opposed to mixing religion and politics. Nearly 70% say the Iraq war was unjustified, though Jews are the most anti-isolationist of the tribes, with 57% strongly disagreeing with the notion that the U.S. should mind its own business internationally.

Percent of voting-age population: 2.7%

Who they are: Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, and other smaller groups.
  • Muhammad Ali
  • Keith Ellison
  • M. Night Shyamalan

  • Summer 2004: Conservative: 10%, Moderate: 46%, Liberal: 44%.
  • Summer 2008: Conservative: 12%, Moderate: 47%, Liberal: 40%
  • Summer 2004: Republican: 12%, Independent: 33%, Democratic: 55%.
  • Summer 2008: Republicans: 15%, Independents 16%, Democrats: 69%

Candidate Preference:
  • November 2004: Bush 23%, Kerry 77%.
  • Summer 2008: McCain: 17%, Obama: 67%, undecided: 16%
Political Trend: In 2000, Muslims backed Bush, but the other groups went for Gore. In 2004, responding to President Bush’s War on Terrorism, Muslims broke overwhelmingly for John Kerry., as did most other “others.” They’re edging further in the Democratic direction this year.

What they care about: They care more about economics (and are liberal on it) but some (Muslims especially) are conservative on social issues like gay marriage. Still, most want to keep religion out of politics. And only Jews care more about foreign policy.

Percent of voting-age population: 8.5%

Who they are: Fairly orthodox in practice (60% report attending worship once a week or more) and belief (nearly half are biblical literalists). However, the experience of slavery and segregation has produced a distinctive theology. More than 6 in 10 live in the South.


  • Summer 2004: Conservative: 27%, Moderate: 48%, Liberal: 25%.
  • Summer 2008: Conservative: 30%, Moderate: 46%, Liberal: 24%
  • Summer 2004: Republican: 11%, Independent: 19%, Democratic: 70%.
  • Summer 2008: Republicans: 8%, Independents 10%, Democrats: 83%

Candidate Preference:
  • November 2004: Bush 17%, Kerry 83%.
  • Summer 2008: McCain: 6%, Obama: 79%, undecided: 16%
Political trend: Though George W. Bush made inroads in states like Ohio and Florida in ’04, they’ve long been solidly Democratic – and this year even more so, with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.

What they care about: Fully 70% now put top priority on economic issues. . And 55% want to see more government services, the only group in which a majority holds that view. But black Protestants are more socially conservative than most economic liberals. A slight majority are pro-life on abortion and 65% support traditional marriage. 63% want churches to be politically active, more than any other group but the Christian Right. On foreign policy, meanwhile, the two groups couldn’t be further apart. More than 85% of black Protestants say the Iraq war was unjustified.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad