Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Is the “God Gap” about to Strike Back?

Two years ago we highlighted the importance of the “new Catholic vote” and the “God Gap” in presidential elections. Americans without a religious affiliation, often referred to as “Nones,” are as important to the success of the Democrats in presidential elections now as Catholics were to Democrats in the early 1960s. With the Nones growing in number this will likely become a stronger advantage for Democrats in the years ahead. 

However, before anyone starts running for president again there is another religious wrinkle ahead in the 2014 midterm elections. In many cases, the Democrats are contesting the 2014 Senate elections as a visitor on the Republican Party’s more religious home field and this may lead to a loss of their majority. The cohort of Senate seats that are up for election in 2014 includes many states where residents say “religion is an important part” of their daily life (“somewhat” or “very” combined). When more than 70% of a state expresses this, more often than not, they vote majority Republican.

The scatterplot below shows the 2012 percentages of adults saying religion is an important part of their daily life (“somewhat” or “very” combined) for each state on the horizontal X-axis (source: Gallup) and the percentage of a state’s voters casting ballots for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 on the vertical Y-axis.

The data fall into four sections. On the lower left is the strength of the Democrat’s geographic coalition—states where less than 70% of residents say religion is an important part of daily life. This group includes Northeastern states such as Vermont (43% say religion is important), New Hampshire (50%), Maine (50%), Massachusetts (54%), Rhode Island (56%), Connecticut (60%), New York (62%), Pennsylvania (68%), New Jersey (66%), Delaware (66%), Maryland (69%), and the District of Colombia (59%). It also includes Western states such as Washington (56%), Oregon (56%), Hawaii (59%), California (64%), Nevada (59%), and Colorado (61%). A few Midwestern states are in this block as well including Wisconsin (66%), Minnesota (66%), Michigan (67%), Illinois (68%), Iowa (69%), and Ohio (69%). Collectively, these more “secular” states represent 285 Electoral College votes. Only 270 are needed to win the presidency.

The upper right portion of the scatterplot represents the strength of the Republican’s geographic coalition—states where 70% or more of residents say religion is an important part of daily life. This group includes Southern states like Mississippi (88% say religion is important), Alabama (86%), Louisiana (83%), South Carolina (82%), Arkansas (81%), Tennessee (81%), Georgia (80%), North Carolina (80%), Texas (79%), Oklahoma (78%), Kentucky (75%), West Virginia (74%), and Florida (70%; voted majority Democrat in 2012). It also includes some states in the Midwest and Western states like Kansas (74%), South Dakota (73%), Utah (73%), Indiana (72%), Missouri (72%), Nebraska (71%), North Dakota (71%), and New Mexico (70%; voted majority Democrat in 2012). Collectively, these more religious states represent 216 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency.

The two blocks of states described above, are shown in the maps below:

The upper left “outlier” portion of the scatterplot includes a set of Republican states where less than 70% of the population say religion is an important part of your daily life and where a majority voted Republican. These states include more rural locations such as Wyoming (60% say religion is important), Alaska (60%), Montana (53%), Idaho (66%), and Arizona (67%). These collectively represent 24 Electoral College votes.

There is only one lonely outlier in the lower right segment of the scatterplot—Virginia. Here, 73% of the population say religion is an important part of daily life but only 48% voted Republican in 2012. Virginia is currently what I would call “pocketbook blue.” Voters here in many ways resemble the portrait of other Republican states (rural and suburban with higher religiosity). However, Northern Virginia is a rather unique place. Many residents either work for or contract with the Federal Government. Those who don’t, often work for businesses that cater to and/or need the patronage of those working for the government. As long as Republicans have austerity and shrinking the size of government as one of their top priorities they will not win Northern Virginia, which makes it difficult to win all of Virginia.   

Virginia as well as other “borderline” religiosity states like Ohio (69%), Florida (70%), and New Mexico (70%) are the “battlegrounds” sitting at the fulcrum point of the “God Gap” and American electoral politics and this may have shifted a bit since 2012 (Minnesota and Iowa are now at or above the 70% line). Gallup’s religiosity data for 2013 are shown in the figure below in the states where Senate seats are up for election in 2014. The color of each bar represents the current incumbent party. There are nine seats currently held by Democrats in states where 70% or more say religion is important in their daily lives (“somewhat” or “very” combined). One of these is Virginia, which will remain blue (current polling data suggests a very strong Democratic lead). The other eight seats may be in play. Republicans have only two seats to defend below the 70% line and one of these, Wyoming is a safe outlier. The math and the model seem to indicate an opportunity for Republicans to gain a slim majority.

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