November 5, 2008
Examining the Exit Poll Data on Evangelicals
As readers of this blog know, I've been pushing the hypothesis that evangelicals in the Midwest were going to be shifting to Obama in ways that their co-religionists in other parts of the country, especially the South, were not. And lo and behold, yesterday's vote more or less bears that out. Across the Midwest, where evangelicals tended to vote 3-1 for George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004, they tended to vote only 2-1 for John McCain over Barack Obama yesterday. Meanwhile, in the South and what we call the Southern Crossroads, whereas in 2004 evangelicals voted 3-1 or better for Bush over Kerry, in most states they actually voted by greater margins for McCain over Obama.
Let's compare Indiana and Oklahoma. Hoosier evangelicals favored Bush by 77-22 but McCain by only 66-41. Oklahomans, by contrast, voted 77-23 for Bush and 77-22 for McCain. Midwest pickups for Obama included 11 points in Ohio, 13 in Michigan, 11 in Iowa, 11 in South Dakota, and 19 in Nebraska. But he lost one point in Alabama, five in Mississippi, three in Kentucky, five in Tennessee, eight in Louisiana, and five in Arkansas. There were some exceptions. In Missouri, which we include in the Southern Crossroads (but which has real Midwestern features), there was a 14-point shift to Obama. And in Kansas, which we include in the Midwest (but which has real Southern Crossroads features), there was a 2-point shift to McCain. Meanwhile, out West, there were significant shifts by evangelicals toward Obama in Oregon (15), Colorado (20), and Idaho (12). In the latter two states, however, the shift didn't even manage to bring the vote down to 3-1 levels.)
I haven't tried to do all the calculations, but one thing is clear. In Indiana's astonishing flip to blue, fully half the 21-point shift came from the evangelicals. The larger question has to do with explaining the overall bifurcation. The most likely explanation for what happened in the South and Southern Crossroads is the persistence of racial prejudice in those regions. It's also the case that this is where evangelicals are most heavily organized and mobilized as Republican partisans. But in the Midwest, there is Obama's identity as a Midwesterner, and the common Midwestern religious sensibility that he appealed to, to take into account. Not to belabor the point, but Obama's communitarian outlook is very much the Midwestern way--a point Andrew Walsh and I make in our new book, One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics. The book postulates that, led by the likes of Obama, we may be now be trading the Crossroads ethos of Bush and Company for a Midwestern one. As the book's last line reads: "If there is to be a new style of religious pluralism in America, there is something to be said for having it emerge from the Midwest."
(Originally published at Spiritual Politics.)