University of Southern California

Center for Religion & Civic Culture

Where’s the Faith? A New Role for Religion in American Elections

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Republicans might need to get used to losing, at least on the national stage. The 2012 presidential election was the first to demonstrate how much the American electorate is changing when it comes to the role of race and religion.  

While religion was a bit player in this election— since neither candidate could benefit much by extolling his own faith— there were three religious demographic trends that factored into creating an Obama victory, and, most likely, a lasting Democratic winning coalition.

First, the religious right (including Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition super PAC) did not have enough influence to sway the election as they had in years past.  While white evangelicals still voted in great numbers for Romney (79 percent compared to 20 percent for Obama), there were too few evangelical voters to shift the election results. This is a dramatic change from just a few years ago when white evangelicals could land one of their own, George W. Bush, in the White House. While they were unsuccessful at a national level during a presidential election year, a ray of light exists at the local and state levels . Roe v. Wade is still the federal law of the land, but over the last four years, activists have created laws limiting access to abortion in 32 states. Conservative evangelicals may be down, but they are definitely not out.

Second, since the white evangelical vote couldn’t guarantee a victory , Republicans probably need to start worrying— and many already have— about getting back at least some of the Latino vote which heavily favored Obama (72 percent to 23 percent). The Latino vote, which grew by 22 percent since 2008, lined up firmly behind the Democratic Party, giving Obama an overall win on the Catholic vote (52-48 percent). Not only did the Latino vote eliminate the need for Obama to get even close to a majority of white voters, they also shaped state elections. In California, for example, Latinos make up 23 percent of the electorate and they lined up in favor of tax increases that fund education—58 percent voted for the measure. Additionally, while many have argued that Latinos are “natural” Republicans because of their religious views, this election showed that winning their vote is much more complex than it may be presumed . Many Republican strategists, including F ox News host Sean Hannity and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have spoken of the need to include comprehensive immigration reform in the Republican platform. There is no evidence that a simple pandering to this electorate will undo years of support for legislation such as Arizona’s anti-immigration SB 1070, which many argue is racial profiling dressed up in legalese .

Finally, while it did not garner as much news coverage as the other two notable points about religion and the election, there is a growing importance of the un-churched demographic, or those who describe themselves as not having any particular religious institutional affiliation. Currently, 20 percent of Americans describe themselves this way and they still by and large went strongly for the Democratic Party. However, Democrats actually lost some of this demographic to Republicans between 2008 and 2012 (67 to 30 percent in 2008 and 62 to 34 percent in 2012,  a net loss for the Democrats of 5 percent). This small ray of light for the GOP may be happening for several reasons. First, the popularity of Ron Paul (and his libertarian philosophy) amongst younger voters might account for some of this shift to the Republican Party. Second, it may be a reaction against the renewal of ”god talk” within the Democratic party, especially the insistence that God be added back into the Democratic Party Platform during the 2012 election, an addition that at the time caused much controversy. But perhaps the biggest story here is how hard it is to get these voters to the polls. While the share of religiously unaffiliated grew significantly between 2008 and 2012, their percentage of the electorate remained unchanged at 12 percent. So the real story with this group might be how either party can find these voters without churches as their organizational hub and then get them to the polls. Whichever party can figure this out might just have a real game changer.

Photo by Jason Langheine.