What to make of the findings on political identification and church attendance in Gallup’s new survey on the Flight from the GOP in the 21st century? The headline is that the only demographic group showing no flight are the frequent church attenders–those who say they go to church at least once a week. What’s odd about this finding is that it does not track the shift in this group’s voting behavior. By 2000, weekly attenders were preferring Republicans to Democrats in presidential and congressional elections to the tune of 60 percent to 40 percent–the famous God Gap. That 20-point margin held in 2002 and 2004 but in 2006 sunk into the low teens, where it remained in 2008. So if the weekly attenders have voted increasingly Democratic in the past decade, how come there’s no sign of it in their party ID?
As this disquisition from Pew makes clear, party ID and voting patterns are different animals, with the former tending to show greater volatility (though, not, apparently, in present instance). It’s important to bear in mind that the 60-40 gap among weekly attenders in 2000 translates into a 52-41 gap among Republican identifiers (including leaners) in Gallup’s 2000 ID numbers. That’s allowing for 11 percent who refused to give even a “leaning” preference. In 2009, the percentage of refusniks went down to 8 percent, meaning that the party ID gap among frequent attenders shrunk by three points, to 52-44.
Still and all, it’s clear that the Democrats made significantly less headway among the most observant than they did among the less so. The GOP lost 9 points among those who seldom or never attend and 6 points among the nearly weekly or monthly attenders. Factoring out the non-identifiers, this means that the Democratic advantage among the least observant nearly tripled, jumping 21 points from 51-38 to 63-29; while among the pretty frequent attenders, the Dems have turned a three point deficit (43-46) into a 12 point advantage (52-40).
These latter shifts do track voting patterns, and they suggest two things; first, that the Republicans have driven the least observant voters into the arms of the Democrats; and second, that the Democratic Party’s effort to show a more religion-friendly side has borne its fruit among the pretty observant. What’s important to recognize is that the latter is the critical religious swing group that Democratic faith-based efforts have always been directed towards.
One way to think of that group is in terms of the abortion issue. As I recently noted, there are a lot of Americans who now call themselves “pro-life” but who support the right to abortion in some instances–according to Gallup’s recent poll on the subject, over 20 percent. A large proportion of them are likely to be pretty frequent church attenders. They’re the ones who have found themselves increasingly susceptible to Democratic appeals, and it’s clear that President Obama will do what he can to keep them in the fold.
Update: Chip Berlet takes the anti-common ground liberal perspective today over on Religion Dispatches. A good try, but he’s wrong from a practical political perspective, in my view. The Democratic play is to keep the pretty religious from getting scared by culture wars appeals, so they can base their votes on Democratic issues like health care and economic recovery. The left is entitled to resist the temporizing on principle. But it shouldn’t kid itself about what’s pragmatic.