Much has been written about how George W. Bush, Matt Blunt and other Republicans rode the votes of rural Missouri’s evangelical Christians to victory this year. The same pattern repeated itself in most other states with substantial evangelical Christian populations. Evangelicals make news whenever they turn out in large numbers, because they are the one segment of the current Republican coalition whose turnout is unreliable. But their bloc voting power isn’t really new.
Religion was a major factor in the 1960 election. Prior to then, every American President had been Protestant (and a freemason as well). No major party had nominated a Roman Catholic for president since Catholic Democrat Al Smith lost to Republican Herbert Hoover in 1928. In 1960 Democrat John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism inspired not only a surge of Democratic votes among Roman Catholics of all political stripes, but also a backlash from evangelical Protestants. In both rock-ribbed Republican Ozark counties and staunchly Democratic counties like Monroe in Little Dixie and the exurban counties surrounding Kansas City, JFK trailed 4-6 percentage points behind Democrat Adlai Stevenson’s pace in the prior election. Blacks in St. Louis gave Kennedy their lowest percentage of any Democratic presidential candidate since World War II. Catholic voters picked up the slack, as Kennedy carried Republican areas like St. Louis Hills and St. Charles, allowing him to carry Missouri with just 50.26% of the vote.
The evangelical vote went the other way in 1976, propelling fellow “born again” Christian Jimmy Carter to victory over incumbent Republican Gerald Ford. Carter’s percentage of the outstate vote approximated his performance in metropolitan areas. (Historically, outstate areas ran about seven points behind.) In some Ozark areas, Carter even ran ahead of President Lyndon Johnson’s pace in his 1964 landslide win over Barry Goldwater.
But by the next election, the evangelicals had soured on Carter. Emerging televangelists like Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson exploited this discontent and inspired many evangelical Christians to switch to Republican Ronald Reagan. While urban and suburban votes changed very little between 1976 and 1980, Carter’s vote in outstate and exurban areas slipped 10 full percentage points, costing him Missouri’s electoral votes and a second term.
The seeds of the Republicans’ 21st Century “moral values” strategy were planted during the Bill Clinton Administration in the 1990s. Resentment over the Clinton sex scandals was highest among rural evangelical voters. While Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign improved his 1992 performance in all parts of the state, he improved less in rural counties than in the metropolitan and exurban areas.
The real “moral values” surge among evangelicals followed in 2000. Besides being the next presidential election following Clinton’s impeachment in connection with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, this election focused on the impact of the new president’s appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court on the continued legality of abortion (as well as rural (not necessarily evangelical) support for gun ownership). The dominant “pro-choice” and gun control sentiments in metropolitan areas produced a surge toward Democrat Al Gore, while strong “pro-life” and pro-gun attitudes among rural evangelicals produced an even greater surge towards Republican George W. Bush. When no Supreme Court vacancies occurred in Bush’s first term, the 2000 battle was replayed in 2004. Urban and Democrat tolerance for developments favoring gay marriage and rural and Republican resistance to them accentuated the divergent urban/rural political trends even further.
The numbers confirm the theory. While Missouri’s rural areas have been less supportive of Democratic presidential candidates than metropolitan areas for years, recent elections have markedly increased the spread. In the 11 presidential elections from 1952-1992, this spread averaged about seven percentage points. The difference was never greater than the 14-point spread in the1960 religious war centered on Kennedy, and the spread virtually disappeared in the 1976 election involving Carter. The spread crept up to 12 points in Clinton’s 1996 re-election, jumped to 18 points in 2000 and to nearly 23 points in 2004!
What lies ahead? Democrats’ best hope is that the deterioration of their rural percentages is attributable to surges in turnout by voters who historically don’t vote very often, and that elections centered on other issues will draw fewer of them to the polls.
On the other hand, there is also potential for further Republican growth from an untapped source of evangelical voters. A substantial part of the African American community is evangelical, with very conservative social values. Many black evangelicals broke with the party and voted against Kennedy in 1960, but they have remained solidly Democratic ever since. They did not join either evangelical surge for Reagan in the 1980's or for Bush the past two elections. Many blacks may have resisted the Falwell/Robertson evangelical surge because they identified that movement with southern racism. But gay marriage may be a different story. African American voters broke with fellow progressives earlier this year by backing Missouri’s constitutional amendment against gay marriage.
It is certainly encouraging for Democrats that no sign of black defection took place in November. (In fact, the six most purely African American wards in St. Louis increased their support for the Democratic ticket this year to a record high 97%.) Whether they continue to tolerate perceived Democrat support for incompatible lifestyles remains to be seen.
Note on classifications: I have lumped urban and suburban votes together as “metropolitan” because county-level reporting does not adequately separate the two. The Kansas City vote was not reported separately from the Jackson County suburbs until 1996, and St. Louis County includes “inner ring” suburbs that vote like the city (and probably would have been part of the city if the city’s boundaries had not been frozen in 1876). While the suburbs vote less Democratic than the core cities, these neighbors’ votes tend to move in the same directions in tandem, especially when compared to outstate voters. The growing exurban vote (the “collar counties” surrounding Jackson and St. Louis Counties) now acts like the hybrid of urban and rural voters that those areas are.