Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why did Indiana go blue? (Part 2)

Another reason for Obama's Hoosier success concerns the evangelical vote. Spiritual Politics blogger Mark Silk notes that while the state's "evangelicals favored Bush by 77-22" in 2004, McCain won "by only 66-41 [sic; should be 31]." In contrast, evangelicals in Southern states generally broke for McCain by a larger margin than they did for Bush in 2004. (Mississippi's 90-9 split is the most extreme example.) Silk offers two different possibilities for this regional difference. The first:

"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."

Silk also mentions in the comments section to his post that since "nearly 40 percent of mainliners answer yes to being born-again or evangelical could be that the differential has to do with large numbers of [Indiana] mainliners voting for Obama, rather than 'true' evangelicals."

Both of these possibilities deserve some context. There is a very, very strong correlation between church attendance and political voting patterns. Protestants and Catholics who attend church on a weekly basis are much more likely to vote for Republicans; those who attend church less, practice another religion, or are non-religious are more inclined to vote for Democrats. To demonstrate, here's a chart that compares this year's "pew gap" with that of 2004. The pew gap remained fairly constant from 2004 to this year, but Obama, crucially, was able to make up a little bit of ground. Since evangelicals typically are every-Sunday church attenders, they factor heavily into this overall equation.

Regarding Silk's second point, the standard exit poll determiner of an evangelical is someone who answers "yes" to the question of whether they consider themselves to be a "born-again Christian," as he alludes. In Indiana, this means that while voters from actual evangelical denominations (for example, Southern Baptists and Pentecostals) will answer "yes," there is likely also a significant percentage of voters from mainline denominations that will self-identify as evangelical (for example, Methodists). This means that while mainliners adhere to the "pew gap" pattern I mention above, they tend to be a bit more flexible politically (even in a relatively conservative state like Indiana). So if the percentage of mainliners within Indiana's evangelical vote was high for this election, then that would, in theory, present slightly more favorable conditions for Obama.

And this leads us to Silk's first point. With a larger percentage of "true" evangelicals in Southern states--evangelicals that identify more as Republicans, and who might have more issues with Obama's race--the evangelical vote breaks most heavily for McCain. Yet in Indiana, the communitarian religious impulse, combined with a higher possibility of mainliners voting evangelical, becomes more important. An instructive example appears in a post that Silk made in late April as the Jeremiah Wright fiasco was still unfolding. Silk notes that Obama had attended a service at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. The sermon he links to that St. Luke pastor M. Kent Miller had presented a few weeks before Obama's visit celebrates the church's "big tent congregation" and ability to overcome racial barriers through honest dialogue and collective worship.

Neither the evangelical vote nor Obama's spread-the-field canvassing offer a full answer of why Indiana went blue. Yet they both signify how Obama deserves credit for running a very strong campaign, as well as how his political and personal identify proved favorable to Hoosier voters.

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