The GOP’s Conservative Christian Conundrum

by Dan Hopkins on February 6, 2013 · 10 comments

in Blogs

We welcome a guest post by Daniel Cox.  He is the Co-founder and Research Director of the Public Religion Research Institute and a Ph.D. candidate in American Government at Georgetown University.

Political pollsters (like myself) spend an inordinate amount of effort gauging the American electorate’s vote intentions. We often focus on the salient issues of the campaign and assess how each issue will drive voters toward or repel them from a candidate. In 2012, many political reporters suggested that the issue of Israel would be pivotal for Jewish Americans, and it did feature prominently in both campaigns. Yet in the end, the issue did not seem to affect the voting decisions of most Jewish voters, 69% of whom backed President Obama. If the question of Israel did not move many Jewish voters, what did? Although it was not discussed widely during the campaign, one of the most influential factors for Jewish voters was the Christian Right.

It is not difficult to see why coverage of issues and campaign events tends to dominate an election cycle. Structural forces that are unperturbed by campaign events make poor copy. Still, in the case of Jewish voters, the close association between the GOP and the Christian Right proved to be profoundly important. And this shouldn’t be surprising. Research by Green, Palmquist and Schickler (2002) demonstrates that partisan attachment is constructed through a process of social group assessment. In determining where they stand politically, Americans assess what social groups they belong to or identify with, and how those groups relate to each of the parties.

Few social groups are further apart in their politics than conservative Christians and Jews. In 2012, the Public Religion Research Institute conducted a survey of Jewish voters. That survey painted a portrait of a group that remains one of the most socially liberal in the U.S. American Jews strongly support legal abortion (93% say it should be legal in all or most cases) and favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry (81%). Conservative Christians, by contrast, are strongly opposed to same-sex marriage (78%), and most believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases (65%). However, the two groups are not just divided on social issues. Both groups also embrace very different perspectives on cultural pluralism, religious traditionalism, and church-state separation issues.

Given the substantial cultural and political gulf separating these two groups, it’s not surprising that Jewish Americans hold cool feelings toward the Christian Right. Our Jewish Values Survey found that on average, the Christian Right scored only 20.9 on a 100-point “feeling thermometer” scale among Jews, well below Muslims (41.4) and Mormons (47). Nearly one in five (19%) Jews gave the Christian Right the lowest score possible (1). In fact, no political or religious group scored lower among Jews than the Christian Right.

In 2012, these negative feelings about the Christian Right appear to have had significant consequences at the ballot box. Among Jewish voters, feelings about the Christian Right were strongly predictive of voting preferences, even when controlling for party identification, age, education, and other characteristics. Jewish voters who harbored very cool feelings toward the Christian Right (a rating of 1-9) had just a 9% probability of supporting the GOP candidate. Among those who rated the group neutrally or higher (50+), the average probability of supporting the Republican candidate was 69%. Not only were feelings toward the Christian Right a significant predictor of voting preference, they were among the strongest predictors. Only partisan affiliation, specifically identifying as a Democrat, had a stronger impact.

Although in recent years conservative Christians have been outshone by the Tea Party, they remain a potent force in American politics as the bedrock of Republican Party’s electoral coalition. They are sometimes discussed as independent movements, but our recent surveys have found that the Tea Party and Christian conservatives are in fact constituencies with overlapping memberships. The 2010 American Values Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, found that nearly half (47%) of Americans who identified with the Tea Party also identified with the Christian Right. Self-identified conservative Christians are also more than twice the size of the Tea Party movement. Christian conservatives remain among the most reliable Republican voters and staunch allies of conservative causes; their views on important social issues like abortion are part of the national party platform.

Over the last 20 years, the Republican electoral coalition has remained relatively stable, while the Democratic coalition has undergone a dramatic transformation. In 1992, exit polls showed that 86% of George H. W. Bush’s voters identified as white Christians, making the GOP of that era nearly identical to Romney’s supporters, 81% of whom were white Christians. Clinton’s coalition in 1992, which also relied heavily on white Christian voters (60%), was starkly different than the one that re-elected Barack Obama. Only 39% of Obama’s voters identified as white Christians in 2012.

The challenge confronting the GOP as it attempts to broaden its base is not limited to Jewish voters. A survey conducted by Pew last year found that more than six in ten (61%) non-Christian affiliated Americans (a group that includes Hindus, Jews and Muslims) agreed that “religious conservatives have too much control over the Republican Party.” Nearly two-thirds of religiously unaffiliated Americans also affirmed this statement. These groups are among the fastest-growing religious communities in the U.S. And if the GOP is serious about appealing to these voters, its candidates must navigate the difficult path of keeping conservative Christians engaged and committed while not appearing beholden to them.

{ 10 comments }

Joe February 6, 2013 at 6:15 pm

I wonder if white Christians is really a good explanation of Romney/Bush Sr GOP. The term isn’t all that more explanatory than white as America remains predominately christian (81 of Americans in a recent pew survey identify as christian and that seems really on the low side as compared to other ones I’ve seen) and because being Christian can usually be thought of as the default position of the vast majority of Americans, it encompasses a wide range of people with a wide range of views and limiting it to merely white doesn’t really get rid of a lot of variation. Perhaps a mixture of religion and political ideological affiliation or splits on religious attendance per week/year would be a better gauge.

Looking at the pew data (link below) seems to indicate that pitting a white christian view versus not white christian with the conclusion that the GOP needs to be less religious to attract votes appears to mistake the views of minorities. For example 30% of black protestants feel there is too much religious talk as opposed to 38% national average. And 32% of Catholics say the same but 40% of white Catholics do suggesting Hispanic voters do not share a more negative view of the GOP because of role in religious life.
on the express views/keep out non white and white Catholics are neck and neck at 60% slightly above the national average (and African Americans wanting more religious influence)

The only time i see where white christian is a good term is that minorities are likely to view the GOP less friendly towards religion (48 of Catholics versus 55 white catholic and African American Protestants at 38% are by far the least likely to view the GOP as friendly towards religion).

This might suggest something exogenous to religion which causes minority Christians to dislike the GOP or more nuanced questions to determine what religious action means to different people. It also seems to say that expressing religion per se is not a a bad idea in American politics.

Also since 2000 unaffiliated has gone 9, 10,12, and 12 percent of the population (during presidential years), hardly exponential growth, and if (especially for mainly secular Jews and unaffiliated) you were to look at the groups from other lenses, would they already by in the dem camp and thus any realistically possible move to separate the GOP from the religious right may not appeal to them. Is that the case?

It seems to me that given ideology and peer group views (as hopkins points out), and given Jews are 2% of the population, generally writing the GOP off of winning those votes may be an issue separate and apart from other religious groups

http://www.pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/How-the-Faithful-Voted-2012-Preliminary-Exit-Poll-Analysis.aspx

As well as pew one linked to in the post
http://www.pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/more-see-too-much-religious-talk-by-politicians.aspx

Helen Bedd February 15, 2013 at 10:03 pm

A very good comment…I’d just note a few things..

“This might suggest something exogenous to religion which causes minority Christians to dislike the GOP”

That would be the Republicans spending the last 30+ years as the anti-civil rights party. [and more recently the anti-Hispanic immigration party.]

Pew now says 19% of Americans have no religious affiliation:
“One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults.”

http://www.pewforum.org/unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

Plus, from the article: “A survey conducted by Pew last year found that more than six in ten (61%) non-Christian affiliated Americans agreed that ‘religious conservatives have too much control over the Republican Party.’ ”

This is one factor in the sizable shift among Asian Americans away from the GOP.

http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-lee-asian-american-voters-20121123,0,7582583.story

Kylopod February 6, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Yet in the end, the issue did not seem to affect the voting decisions of most Jewish voters, 69% of whom backed President Obama.

I agree that it didn’t affect the decisions of most Jewish voters, and I never expected it to. Still, I was surprised how low Obama’s share of the Jewish vote was this time, by recent historical standards. From ’92 to ’08, the Democratic nominee always got at least 78% of the Jewish vote–with the exception of Kerry, who got 74%. Furthermore, Romney got the highest share of the Jewish vote (30%) of any Republican nominee since the Reagan era. As much as I hate to admit it, I suspect the right’s incessant propagandizing on the Israel issue did have an effect on a significant percentage of Jewish voters on the fence. It may not be the only reason for the drop, but I believe it’s one of them.

DanG February 7, 2013 at 11:16 am

“Although in recent years conservative Christians have been outshone by the Tea Party, they remain a potent force in American politics as the bedrock of Republican Party’s electoral coalition.”

This wasn’t the main focus of your post and maybe is reading too much into this remark, but the Tea Party and conservative Christians are (taken as a whole) one and the same, so the Tea Party can’t really outshine its alter ego, the conservative Christian. I suppose the Tea Party label can be promoted more than the Christian label, but it is not accurate to treat these are two distinct groups.

buddyglass February 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm

There are hardly any “Christian right” members (except maybe a few Catholics) who object to the Tea Party platform, even if they don’t consider themselves “members” of the Tea Party movement.

However, the converse isn’t true. There are a decent number of Tea Party “members” who don’t support the “Christian right” platform.

Rick Almeida February 7, 2013 at 3:39 pm

“There are a decent number of Tea Party “members” who don’t support the “Christian right” platform.”

Do you have any evidence to support this?

buddyglass February 7, 2013 at 4:37 pm

Not hard evidence. I do know a couple, though. It does seem as if the Tea Party platform should be fairly palatable to a atheist/agnostic libertarian.

Here’s some info from Pew:

http://www.pewforum.org/politics-and-elections/tea-party-and-religion.aspx

“Americans who support the conservative Christian movement, sometimes known as the religious right, also overwhelmingly support the Tea Party. In the Pew Research Center’s August 2010 poll, 69% of registered voters who agreed with the religious right also said they agreed with the Tea Party.”

“While most people who agree with the conservative Christian movement support the Tea Party, many people who support the Tea Party are unfamiliar with or uncertain about the religious right. In the August poll, almost half of Tea Party supporters said they had not heard of or did not have an opinion on the conservative Christian movement (46%). Among those who did offer an opinion, however, Tea Party supporters agreed with the religious right by a roughly 4-1 margin (42% agreed with the religious right, 11% disagreed).”

Barry February 10, 2013 at 6:44 pm

” In 2012, many political reporters suggested that the issue of Israel would be pivotal for Jewish Americans, and it did feature prominently in both campaigns. Yet in the end, the issue did not seem to affect the voting decisions of most Jewish voters, 69% of whom backed President Obama. If the question of Israel did not move many Jewish voters, what did? Although it was not discussed widely during the campaign, one of the most influential factors for Jewish voters was the Christian Right.”

What question of Israel? It’s right to exist? Likkud policies? (which by now are the policies of Israel iteslf)

kjcjapan February 16, 2013 at 10:09 pm

If the data in this polling is correct, (it does make me wonder if it says what Daniel Cox/the pollsters think it is saying) one has to wonder if there is something else being measured that has less to do with the person being polled being Jewish and their dislike of the polling subject being conservative Evangelical Christian. I would suggest/hypothesize maybe a secular/religious divide that reflective in political opinions. Let’s take what we do know, the #1 indicator of a person’s likelihood to vote Republican vs. Democrat is if they attend a religious service on a weekly basis. This statistic holds across Christian, Jew, Muslim, Mormon, etc. We also know that American Jews tend to be the most secular of an ethnically identifiable religious group in America. The average American Jew is not very likely to go to the synagogue on a regular basis. In other words they are Jewish by birth but not by practice. The average Jew’s opinion of an evangelical is more likely to be hostile based purely on political differences
On the other hand Evangelical Christians are the one group whose members are least likely to discriminate against those of the Jewish faith/ethnicity. While all groups/ethnicities/political parties have some history in this area, evangelical Christians who feel that they have a Biblical mandate to support the Jewish people tend to overwhelmingly support the Israel and the Jewish people. This is not just a recent phenomenon; evangelical German groups were some of the strongest opponents of Hitler and the Holocaust often risking their lives and dying for helping the Jews escape. Prof. Detrick Bonheoffer is but one example of this among many.
In sum, I feel that the idea that Jews hate/dislike/distrust conservative Christians as a whole, as is implied in the article, is more likely to be a reflection of only political differences (liberal/conservative) than anything to do with faith. The average evangelical Christian is far more likely to stand up for Jewish rights than a Muslim, Democrat, mainline Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, etc. and I believe most Jews know this because there is a history of support.

Ken Wald February 28, 2013 at 8:33 pm

I have to disagree with several claims above.

First, the claim that religious attendance is the single best predictor of vote choice, which dates from Andrew Kohut’s Pew reports, is not sustainable. Even if it were true, it’s undermined by the truly massive measurement error in self-reports of religious attendance–something that is likely to be strongest in traditions, such as Evangelical Protestantism, that assign centrality to group worship.

Secondly, the claim that Evangelicals were the strongest opponents of Hitler is a gross exaggeration without evidence. Certainly there were individuals and groups from that tradition who did show courage in resistance but there is equally strong evidence from historians that many high-ranking Nazis were members of the Confessing Church.

Thirdly, the claim that evangelicals are more likely to stand up for Jewish rights is so vague that I don’t know what it means. Evangelicals collectively tend to show high levels of sectarianism and call on the state to embrace a religious identity. Surveys show high levels of support for anti-Jewish stereotypes among evangelicals compared to the rest of the population. When it comes to support for civil liberties, evangelicals are again at the back of the pack. If one equates support for Jews to support for Israel, it’s noteworthy that evangelicals call for steep cuts in foreign aid–which the Israeli government has long maintained is what it understands as “support for Israel.” Like all generalizations, this allows for exceptions but renders untenable the claims in the posting.

I’ve argued that Jewish commitment to the Democratic party is driven principally by support for the party which best guarantees continuation of the liberal regime in church-state relations. Uslaner and Lichbach’s article in the 2009 volume of Politics and Religion (Identity versus Identity: Israel and Evangelicals and the Two-Front War for Jewish Votes) shows that attitudes to evangelicals was the single largest predictor of Jewish vote choice in 2004 while they had minimal impact on the vote choice of non-Jewish Democrats. Uslaner’s preliminary analysis of recent data confirms the point made by Cox and the 2004 study.

One last point. The Solomon Project reanalyzed exit poll data from 2008 and found the sample was biased geographically. When the Jewish sample was reweighted to conform to the known geographic distribution of Jews, the Obama vote in 2008 was 74%. We don’t know if the 2012 exit poll data are similarly biased and won’t for a couple of years. The election day surveys by their nature tend to underrepresent the youngest respondents who voted more heavily for Obama than others. So it may be that the Jewish vote in 2012 held steady or even rose. We simply don’t know now.

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