Eight years ago, innumerable commentators said "values voters"—in other words, voters with conservative values—were responsible for George W. Bush's re-election (liberal voters, apparently, don't have values, they just have opinions). They noticed a correlation between religiosity and the propensity to vote Republican, and in the most religious of all industrialized countries, this "God gap" was routinely characterized as a problem that Democrats had to solve if they were to avoid electoral doom. In fact, today the "God gap" is more of a wash for the two parties, and in the future it could become the Republicans' problem. But the idea that religion only helps Republicans persists, and when GOP presidential candidates competed during the primaries for the title of most pious (with no fewer than three testifying that God had instructed them to run), few considered it something that would damage their eventual nominee.
So let's take a look at what the two parties' religious coalitions look like today. It's often noted that the Republican party has become almost entirely a white party, while the Democrats bring together a far more diverse collection of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups to make up their electoral coalition. Something similar occurs with regard to religion, albeit not quite as starkly.
Unsurprisingly, white evangelical Protestants make up a plurality of the Republican coalition, about a third in the Pew Research Center data seen in these charts. If we put them together with white mainline Protestants and white Catholics, we see that nearly three-quarters of Republicans are white Christians. In contrast, white Christians make up only about a third of the Democratic coalition, joining larger numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and those usually lumped into the "other" religious group–Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others. And perhaps most notably, those who say they have no religious affiliation make up a far larger portion of the Democratic electorate, nearly one in four Democrats. Though specifying who identifies with no religion is sensitive to how the question is asked, other surveys show similar results, with between one in five and one in four Democrats unaffiliated with any religious group.
Next, we'll examine the "God gap" and look at how much of a problem Mormonism has turned out to be for Mitt Romney (spoiler alert: less than almost everybody expected).
The "God gap" is almost always characterized as a problem for Democrats, and they respond by periodically lamenting their inability to appeal to deeply religious voters. There are even political consultants whose sole business is telling Democratic candidates how to speak to the folks in the pews in their own language. What you never hear is Republicans trying to figure out how they can appeal to secular voters. But maybe they should.
To see why, let's look at some exit poll numbers. As I mentioned, the "God gap" is about religiosity, not denomination: whether you're a Protestant, Catholic, or Jew, you're much more likely to be Republican if you're the kind of person who attends services frequently. But it turns out that Democrats are getting the better end of this gap. For instance, in 2008, John McCain got the votes of 55 percent of those who attended religious services every week (who made up 27 percent of voters) and an identical 55 percent of those who attended more than once a week (12 percent of voters). That means his advantage among these two groups won him a total of 21 percent of the vote ((.55 x .27)+(.55 x .12) = .2145). Barack Obama, on the other hand, got 67 percent of those who never attended religious services (16 percent of voters) and 59 percent of those who attended only a few times a year (28 percent of voters), getting him a total of 27 percent of voters ((.67 x .16)+(.59 x .28) = .2724). In sum, Obama got six more percentage points (27 percent) out of less religious voters than McCain got out of more religious voters (21 percent).
Fair enough, you might say, but Obama was cruising to a big win, and he did win the people in the middle—those who attend services monthly—by seven points. So let's go back to 2004. In that year of the "values voter," George W. Bush did better than McCain among the highly religious and John Kerry did worse than Obama among the less religious. But even so, the God gap didn't give Bush anything like the advantage you might have been led to believe.
Bush got 58 percent of the votes of the 26 percent of voters who attended services once a week, and 64 percent of the votes of the 16 percent of voters who attended more than once a week, for a total of 25 percent of all voters ((.58 x .26) + (.64 x .16) = .2532). For his part, Kerry got 62 percent of the 15 percent who never attended services and 54 percent of the 28 percent who attended only a few times a year, for a total of 24 percent of all voters ((.62 x .15) + (.54 x .28) = .2442). So even in the year where religious voters were supposed to have made all the difference, the advantage Bush got from his God gap—nine-tenths of one point—was far smaller than his overall margin of victory of two and a half percentage points.
And how is this likely to play out in the future? Every election will have its own dynamic, but religious attendance has been falling steadily. According to General Social Survey data, in 1972, 41 percent of Americans said they attended services nearly every week or more often, while only 16 percent said they attended less than once a year or never. By 2010, the frequent attendees had declined to 30 percent of the population, while those barely ever or never attending had increased to 29 percent. In other words, 40 years ago there were almost three times as many highly religious people as non-religious people (measured by their participation), while today the two groups are equal in size.
There's one more thing to understand. While America might undergo a religious revival at some point in the future, right now the younger you are, the less likely you are to be religious. About one in four Americans under 30 say they don't affiliate with any religion, compared to one in five Gen-Xers, one in eight Baby Boomers, and only one in twenty of those in the "greatest generation." That means that as time passes and the older generations die off, the country—and the electorate—are likely to become more and more secular. It's important to remember that most Democrats are still religious to at least some degree. The problem Republicans have created for themselves is that they have become an entirely religious party that sends constant messages of exclusion to secular voters. Just as with white voters, they have staked their claim with a group that will shrink as a proportion of the population in years to com.
Early in the 2012 campaign, there was a great deal of discussion about whether evangelical Christians, the core of the Republican coalition, would support a Mormon candidate in the same numbers they would a Protestant or a Catholic. After all, many evangelicals consider Mormonism not to be a genuine form of Christianity, and some even believe it to be a dangerous cult. Romney himself has always been extremely cautious when it comes to discussing his religion, avoiding any mention of Mormon theology and sticking to the most generalized and anodyne expressions of faith. He obviously wants to be reassuring without giving anyone a reason to vote against him because of his religion.
If you haven't heard all that many expressions of concern from Republicans over the religion issue lately, it's because it turns out not to have been much of an issue. It looks like partisanship is going to trump religion: as these data from a poll taken in June and July by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life show, there is absolutely no difference in how likely Romney's key voters are to pull the lever for him between those who have no problem with Mormonism and those who do. Virtually all Republicans are voting for Romney, even those uncomfortable with Mormonism, and evangelical Christians—who were supposed to be the ones who might shy away—are just as likely to vote for Romney no matter what they think of Mormons in general. He's also doing just as well among evangelicals as his predecessors did (McCain won 74 percent of white evangelicals, and Bush got 78 percent). Whether this is because of something Romney did (not all that likely) or the result of partisan affiliations being a stronger motivator than religious doubts (much more likely), it doesn't look as though Mitt Romney has much of a Mormon problem after all.