God Gap a white thing

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The Religion News Service consigns it to the Dept. of Things We Already Knew, but Gallup’s new survey of religion and party i.d. is more noteworthy than that. For starters, it makes clear that the God Gap (i.e. the preference of the more religious for Republicans and the less religious for Democrats) is almost entirely confined to non-Hispanic whites. Although Hispanics are also more likely to identify as Republicans the more religious they are, the increase is small.

Gallup’s definition of “religious intensity” involves combining self-reported frequency of worship attendance with respondents’ ranking of religion’s importance to them. The result is four categories: highly religious, religious, less religious, and not religious. In percentage terms, the non-Hispanic white population is split down the middle, with half “highly religious” or “religious” and half less or not. The former identify as Republicans by a 25 point margin and the latter as Democrats by a 15 point margin.

What’s politically important to bear in mind that religiosity on this measure is not a bell-shaped curve, with the largest number of respondents in the “religious” and “less religious” middle and fewer at the “highly religious” and “not religious ends.” Rather, the big groups–roughly twice as large as the others–are “highly religious” (34 percent) and “less religious” (32 percent). In electoral politics, it’s the groups in the middle that are accessible to the other side–which is to say that the Republicans’ best chances are with the “less religious” and the Democrats’ with the “religious” (18 percent). (The “not religious” weigh in at 16 percent.) And that’s why the Gallup array is good news for the Republicans, not so much for the Democrats.

To attract more support, the GOP has a lot more folks to go after–those who don’t care about religion much but don’t mind darkening a church door every now and then. Downplaying abortion and gay marriage in favor of “big government,” as the Republicans are doing, is the way to appeal to them. By contrast, the Democrats are limited to the fewer number of “religious.”

One of the reasons strenuous Democratic efforts to demonstrate their religion-friendliness have achieved only modest results is that two out of three of the white voters they’re trying to appeal to are locked-up Republicans. Witness the limited success of “common ground” religious strategies this year. That’s not necessarily to say that the Dems should stop trying, but they need to scale back their expectations, if they haven’t already.