At the outset, the 2012 election seemed ripe for a struggle over religion. White evangelical Protestants’ anxiety about former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, Americans’ overall dearth of knowledge about President Obama’s religion, in addition to the Obama administration’s struggle with the American Catholic bishops over contraception, vaulted religion into the public eye several times during the course of the Republican primaries and the general campaign.
In the end, religion was relegated to a supporting role, dwarfed mainly by economic issues. But its importance should not be overlooked: while the economy, health care, and the deficit were the issues that voters specifically cited as most important in this election, the results – on the state and the national level – also signal historic shifts in values and demographics.
It was clear throughout the general election that economic issues were at the forefront of voters’ minds. The importance of the economy and the role of government were particularly clear in the strategically critical state of Ohio. In the exit polls, 60 percent of Ohio voters said that they approve of federal government’s aid to U.S. automakers. During a series of focus groups Public Religion Research Institute conducted last weekend in Columbus among white working-class independent voters, the conversation focused primarily on jobs and the economy, while social issues received much less attention.
This year, however, several state ballot initiatives ushered in a sea change on the issue of same-sex marriage, which was one of two issues at the tip of the spear in the 2004 “values voters” movement. Same-sex marriage notably did not come up in debates this year and was not used as wedge issue. This has certainly not been the case in recent elections: in 2004 alone, 11 out of 11 state ballot measures banning same-sex marriage passed. But opinions have shifted dramatically over the past decade. In national polling over the past twelve months, PRRI has consistently seen pluralities or slim majorities of Americans reporting that they support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. For the first time last night, same-sex marriage has been passed by popular vote in Maine and Maryland; it may also pass in Washington State. And given younger Americans’ overwhelming support for same-sex marriage, it seems unlikely this issue will reappear as a major national wedge issue.
There is also evidence that publicly expressing extreme views about abortion in cases of rape hurt Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, both of whom lost last night, and underperformed among white evangelical Protestants, a key Republican constituency. In Missouri, Akin trailed Romney’s support among white evangelicals by 20 points (57 percent vs. 77 percent). In Indiana, Mourdock lagged behind Romney among white evangelicals by 11 points (69 percent vs. 80 percent). As I noted in a pre-election column, only about one-quarter (24 percent) of white evangelical Protestants agree that abortion should be illegal in all cases, and politicians who stake out positions in this rarified territory can expect to lose support.
Finally, the changing demographics of the country, and the values held by different demographic groups, also cannot be underestimated. The early exit polls show a nearly linear relationship between age and Republican support. Obama won among Americans under 30 by 23 points, while Romney won seniors by 12 points. And this year, as in 2008, younger voters turned out, rivaling seniors as a proportion of the electorate. Another key value in this election is the treatment of immigration and other issues important to Latino voters, who now constitute 10 percent of all voters. Nearly two-thirds of Latino voters say illegal immigrants should be granted some legal status, and those voters strongly supported Obama. While George W. Bush won 44 percent of Latino voters in 2004, Romney won less than 3-in-10.
Next week, when PRRI releases post-election research that will closely examine the role religion, values, and economic issues played in the 2012 election, we will be able to unpack these preliminary results further. The post-election survey will also explore what expectations Americans have for Congress and Obama’s second term, as the national government moves into high-stakes budget talks. But for now, one thing is clear: although the 2012 election may have turned on economic issues, values and changing demographics also played a vital role in shaping its outcome.
More on faith and the election:
Mason: ‘Mormon Moment’ RIP
Elizabeth Tenety: God after 2012: How did election change religion and politics landscape?
David Gibson: What’s next for religious conservatives?
Figuring Faith: Faith in 2012 by the numbers
Otterson: What lies ahead for Mormons?
Thistlethwaite: Compassion in chief: Why Obama won
Berlinerblau: An open letter to conservatives
Schneier and Ali: Why American Jews and Muslims backed Obama by huge margins