Chads and dimples aside, in the 2000 presidential election, race and religious commitment were the key determinants in whether one voted for Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore.

A study conducted by the University of Akron (Ohio) reveals sharp partisan divisions between black and white evangelicals, as well as between religiously observant and less observant voters.

"There is a strong cultural split within religious traditions, not just among evangelicals but also among [observant] Mormons and Catholics, versus the modernists and those who are a lot less orthodox," said study coauthor Lyman Kellstedt, a political science professor at Wheaton College (Illinois).

Election in Black and White

Bush's strongest constituency was white evangelical Protestants who attend church at least once a week. Eighty-four percent of them voted for Bush, providing nearly one-third of his total. Evangelicals made up only 13 percent of Gore's vote. Gore did much better among black Protestants, those who claim no religious affiliation, and those who attend church less than once a week. White evangelical Protestants also voted much more strongly for Bush in 2000 than they voted for GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole in 1996.

The Akron study, however, painted with a broad ecclesiastical brush. It defined evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism by denominational affiliation, using the official positions of the denominations to categorize respondents. For example, all Southern Baptists were classified as evangelicals, while all United Methodists were called mainline Protestants.

The increase in white evangelical Protestants voting Republican is consistent with trends showing a gradual shift away from the Democratic Party—with which evangelicals were once strongly aligned, particularly in the South—and a shift in attitudes. "White evangelicals are not moved by social-justice issues generally associated with the Democratic Party," Kellstedt says.

A poll conducted by the California-based Barna Research Group found that "character was clearly the most compelling factor" in voting for Bush. According to the November 2000 survey, "Bush was four times more likely than was Gore to be identified as a man of good character by the respective candidate's supporters."

Bush was also "deemed superior to Gore in providing moral leadership by a 19-point margin."

John Green, a University of Akron political science professor and coauthor of the study, points out that although Gore did better among the less religiously observant, who were not as concerned with moral issues, he failed to carry these groups. This contrasts with former President Bill Clinton, who consistently managed to attract support from less observant white Protestants, as well as from evangelicals.

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Green believes Gore's loss of these and the more religiously observant voters could well have cost him his home state of Tennessee and other Democratic-leaning states such as Arkansas and West Virginia, any one of which would have given him the presidency.

Gore, however, did win over many self-described born-again Christians. The Barna poll reveals that a significant number of born-again Christians (42 percent) voted for Gore, while 57 percent voted for Bush. Barna defines born-again Christians as "people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior."

The Barna poll also shows that Gore gained momentum among born-again voters, winning more than 80 percent of those votes that were decided between Labor Day and Election Day.

Mobilizing African Americans

Pollsters say this is largely explained by the increased voter turnout of African Americans who were mobilized predominantly through black churches as the closeness of the election became apparent.

Indeed, just as white evangelical Protestants were Bush's strongest constituency, black Protestants were Gore's strongest voting bloc, casting 96 percent of their ballots for the vice president.

"The black Protestant church is the most solidly Democratic component of the African-American community," Green said, adding that Bush's failure to attract more blacks stemmed from campaign themes of reducing the size of the federal government and opposing "hate crimes" legislation, as well as Bush's ambiguity on affirmative action.

Whether Bush—who has appointed three African Americans to his cabinet and is working with African-American church leaders on faith-based initiatives (see facing page)—will be able to woo more blacks in time for 2004 is unclear.

Meanwhile, the Democrats will have to win back white Protestants and evangelicals. "If the 2000 election is any indication," Green says, "each party has [its] work cut out."

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Related Elsewhere

"How the Faithful Voted: Religion and the 2000 Presidential Election" is available at Beliefnet.

Much of Barna's research on the 2000 vote is available at his Web site.

Other Christianity Today coverage of the 2000 election includes:

Checks and (out of) Balance | Moral truth is in jeopardy when the courts enter the business of making law. (Feb. 27, 2001)

Catholics Remain Largest Bloc in Congress | Baptists, Methodists follow. (Jan. 23, 2001)

Religious Right Loses Power | A few victories, but more losses for conservatives. (Dec. 18, 2000)

The Bush Agenda | Will the White House be user-friendly for religious organizations? (Dec. 15, 2000)

Bush's Call to Prayer | After Al Gore's concession, evangelical leaders unify around faith-based initiatives, morality, and prayer as the incoming Bush administration gears up. (Dec. 14, 2000)

Books & Culture Corner: Election Eve | Why isn't anyone focusing on those who simply won't bother to vote? (Nov. 6, 2000)

Books & Culture Corner: Pencils Down Part II | Think your vote matters? You poor, misguided fool. (Sept. 18, 2000)

Anniversary of Church Shootings Serves as Reminder for Bush | Presidential candidate promises to battle religious bigotry in wake of Texas tragedy. (Sept. 15, 2000)

Books & Culture Corner: Pencils Down, the Election's Over | According to political scientists, Al Gore has already won. (Sept. 11, 2000)

A Presidential Hopeful's Progress | The spiritual journey of George W. Bush starts in hardscrabble west Texas. Will the White House be his next stop? (Sept. 5, 2000)

A Jew for Vice-President? | Joseph Lieberman's Torah observance could renew America's moral debate. (Aug. 9, 2000)

Bush and Gore Size Up Prolife Running Mates | Will abortion stances play an influential role in Vice Presidential selection? (July 17, 2000)

Gary Bauer Can't Go Home Again | Internal survey at Family Research Council says 'partisan' leader unwelcome. (Feb. 8, 2000)

Might for Right? | As presidential primaries get under way, Christian conservatives aim to win. (Feb. 3, 2000)

God Bless America's Candidates | What the religious and mainstream presses are saying about religion on the campaign trail and other issues. (Dec. 10, 1999)

Conservatives Voice Support for Bauer (Nov. 15, 1999)

Bush's Faith-Based Plans | Bush argues that private religious organizations can partner successfully with government. (October 25, 1999)

Can I get a Witness? | Candidate testimonies must move beyond piety to policy. (August 9, 1999)

Republican Candidates Court Conservatives Early, Often (Apr. 4, 1999)

Reconnecting with the Poor | If people are hurting, it's our business. (Jan. 11, 1999)

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