by Scott Keeter

President Bush’s job approval rating has fallen, and his personal favorability is down significantly as well, leading many Republicans to worry about the impact a weakened president will have on his party’s showing in the fall mid-term elections. Even among one of the president’s most supportive constituencies, white evangelical Protestants, Mr. Bush has suffered declines. Given the importance of evangelicals for the electoral successes of the Republican Party over the past several years, how serious is Bush’s slump among this key voter group for the party’s prospects this fall?

FigureA new analysis by the Pew Research Center finds that while the president still has the support of a majority of white evangelical Protestants, significantly fewer of them now approve of his performance in office (55% approve, 38% disapprove) than was true at the start of his second term when 72% approved and only 22% disapproved.

Indeed, since he began his second term in office, Bush’s approval rating has declined as much among white evangelicals as among the public as a whole. In addition, his personal ratings among evangelicals are also now more negative than ever before – 35% now have an unfavorable view of Bush, compared with 21% of registered evangelical voters in October 2004. Moreover, 45% of evangelicals agreed with the statement that “I am tired of all the problems associated with the Bush administration” – less than a majority but a sizable number nonetheless.

Yet there is little indication, as of now, that evangelicals are likely to abandon the Republican Party electorally. Pew’s polling finds that the percentage of white evangelicals identifying as Republicans has actually increased slightly in 2006, and the number of these who say they intend to vote for Republican candidates this November is no lower now than it was at a comparable point in 2002, the last mid-term election.

Evangelicals and the Republican Party

Evangelical Christians have been a powerful force in American politics at many points in the nation’s history. They played a key role in the rise of the abolitionist movement, in the triumph of the progressive movement, and more recently in the rise of the religious right in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite considerable ambivalence about engaging in politics, many American evangelicals have come to believe that participation in politics is necessary to defend their values and promote their vision of society. Their growing solidarity on behalf of the Republican Party has been critical to the party’s electoral successes of the past decade.

FigureIndeed, in many respects, white evangelicals have become the bedrock of the GOP. In the 2004 election, they were the largest single demographic group among Bush voters, constituting fully 35% of his total. By comparison, African Americans – the most loyal of Democratic constituencies – constituted only about one-fifth (21%) of Kerry’s voters.

The rising political clout of evangelical Christians is not the result of growth in their numbers but rather of their increasing cohesiveness as a key element of the Republican Party. The proportion of the population composed of white evangelicals has changed very little (19% in 1987; 22% now) and what growth there was occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

However, in 1987, white evangelical Protestants were closely divided in their partisan attachments, with 34% identifying as Republicans and 29% as Democrats. The shift toward Republican identification among white evangelicals came in two stages. In the late 1980s, white evangelicals in the South were still mostly wedded to the Democratic Party while evangelicals outside the South were more aligned with the GOP. But over the course of the next decade or so, the GOP made gains among white Southerners generally – and evangelicals in particular – nearly eliminating this regional disparity. Since the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Republican identification has grown among both Southern and non-Southern evangelicals.

Today, Republicans outnumber Democrats among white evangelicals by more than two-to-one (51%-22%), and hold a 63%-29% lead when partisan “leaners” are included. Although Republican Party identification among both evangelicals and non-evangelicals increased slightly following the September 11 attacks, it has since retreated to pre-9/11 levels for non-evangelicals. Among evangelicals, it has continued to rise. Today, white evangelicals make up 22% of the population, and constitute nearly four out of every ten (39%) Republicans.

Moreover, white evangelicals are approaching the same degree of political solidarity with the GOP that African-American voters accord the Democratic Party. In the 2004 presidential race, George W. Bush received 78% of their vote, up 10 percentage points from 2000. And while Bush also increased his margin among other religious groups (his overall gain from 2000 to 2004 was 3 percentage points; among Catholics, it was 5 percentage points, and among both Jews and black Protestants, 6 points), white evangelicals provided the highest level of support for Bush among any religious group, and represented the largest increase of any group in his vote share compared with 2000.

Evangelicals and the 2006 Mid-term Elections

Evangelicals were nearly as solid in their support of Republican House candidates in 2004 as they were for President Bush. According to the 2004 NEP exit poll, 74% of white evangelicals voted for a Republican for Congress. But Bush’s slump in the polls over the past several months has led to concern among Republicans about the party’s chances this November. Pew’s polling shows that a number of important groups in the population today – particularly independents, mainline Protestants, and white non-Hispanic Catholics – are significantly less likely to vote for the Republican candidate for the House than they were four years ago at about this time.

FigureNotably, however, white evangelicals remain committed to the GOP. In an April Pew poll, 64% of evangelicals said they intended to vote for the Republican candidate for Congress this fall, while 29% said they would vote Democratic (7% were undecided). (By comparison only 41% of all voters say they will opt for a Republican in Congress while 51% say they will pick a Democrat.) The current evangelical split is very similar to the 61%-31% Republican margin among evangelicals in a February 2002 poll looking ahead to that fall’s races, and nearly identical to the 64%-26% margin in Pew’s final pre-election poll that year. As noted above, 74% of white evangelicals ended up casting their votes for the Republican candidate in the subsequent congressional election.

FigureThus there is no sign that Bush’s troubles are currently having a significant impact on the support of this key Republican constituency for the party’s candidates this fall. Moreover, most evangelicals continue to give the party good marks for the job it’s doing standing up for its traditional positions. Currently, 59% of Republican or Republican-leaning evangelicals say the party is doing either an excellent or good job in this respect. That is significantly higher than the 47% rating the party earns among all Republicans and GOP leaners.

The current views of white evangelical Christians are, of course, no guarantee of how they will actually vote this fall – or whether they will vote at all. One concern among Republicans is that while the party’s troubles may not lead many of its supporters to defect to the Democrats, it might lessen their enthusiasm for turning out to vote or for working on behalf of the party’s candidates. And it remains an open question as to whether or not continued strong support from white evangelicals will be enough to offset the GOP’s declining support from other groups. But for now, despite the concerns that many evangelicals express about Bush, it appears that Republicans can continue to count on the strong support of this core constituency.