by Dan Cox, Research Associate

White evangelical Protestants have been one of the most faithful Republican constituencies in presidential elections in recent years, voting overwhelmingly for GOP candidates. In 2004, for example, 79% of white evangelicals supported President Bush, while just 21% supported his Democratic opponent, John Kerry. White evangelicals also accounted for a third of Bush’s total votes that year.

White evangelicals are typically analyzed as a group, but an examination of the younger generation (those ages 18-29) provides evidence that white evangelicals may be undergoing some significant political changes. An analysis of surveys conducted between 2001 and 2007 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press suggests that younger white evangelicals have become increasingly dissatisfied with Bush and are moving away from the GOP. The question is whether these changes will result in a shift in white evangelical votes in 2008 and beyond.
Presidential approval rating graph

Presidential Approval Rating

Bush’s approval rating has fallen fairly steadily among almost every segment of the American public, but the drop in support has been particularly significant among white evangelicals ages 18-29. This group was among Bush’s strongest supporters in the beginning of his presidency; in 2002, for example, an overwhelming majority (87%) approved of Bush’s job performance. By August 2007, however, Bush’s approval rating among this group had plummeted by 42 percentage points, with most of the drop (25 points) coming since 2005.

By contrast, Bush’s job approval among older generations of white evangelicals (those ages 30 and older) has undergone a much more gradual decline, falling 28 points since 2002 and just 11 points since 2005.

Despite the steep decline in their support for the president since 2005, however, younger white evangelicals still remain significantly more likely than the overall population in this age group to approve of the president (45% vs. 28%, a 17-percentage-point gap).
Party identification graph

Party Identification

In 2001, 55% of younger white evangelicals identified as Republicans – nearly three-and-a-half times the number who identified as Democrats, and more than double the number of Americans overall in this age group who identified as Republicans. Throughout Bush’s first term, party identification among younger white evangelicals remained relatively stable, but since 2005 the group’s Republican affiliation has dropped significantly – by 15 percentage points. However, the shift away from the GOP has not resulted in substantial Democratic gains; instead it has produced a small increase in the number of Democrats (five-point increase) and a ten-point increase in the number of independents and politically unaffiliated Americans. Republicans now have only a two-to-one advantage over Democrats among younger white evangelicals, compared with a nearly four-to-one edge in 2005.

By comparison, the shift in party affiliation among older white evangelicals, and Americans overall in the 18-29 age group, has been less dramatic. Older white evangelicals’ Republican Party identification has declined by just five percentage points since 2005, and among young people overall it has also declined by only five points. Yet, despite significant movement away from the GOP since 2005, younger white evangelicals still are twice as likely (40%) as young people as a whole (20%) to say they are Republican.

What Might These Trends Mean?

The trends toward dissatisfaction with Bush and away from the Republican Party by younger white evangelicals suggest that the Democratic Party may have a new opportunity to appeal to this group. Yet, while this group seems to be less loyal to the Republican Party than older white evangelicals, they remain much more conservative than the overall population in the same age group.

Young white evangelicals remain largely committed to politically conservative values and to conservative positions on a variety of issues, including the war in Iraq, capital punishment and abortion. Indeed, in 2007, more white evangelicals ages 18-29 describe their political views as conservative (44%) than moderate (34%) or liberal (15%), almost identical to their ideological leanings in 2001. So although younger white evangelicals are 14 percentage points less conservative on this measure than white evangelicals ages 30 and older, they are 17 points more conservative than young people as a whole.

Young white evangelicals exhibit this conservative tendency in their opinion on the war in Iraq. While support for the war has fallen precipitously among all Americans since 2003, the majority (60%) of younger white evangelicals still believe that using military force in Iraq was the right decision, an identical percentage to the number of older white evangelicals who express the same view. Among younger Americans overall, only 41% say that it was the right decision.

Younger white evangelicals express a similarly conservative opinion when it comes to capital punishment, with the vast majority (72%) favoring the death penalty for convicted murderers, compared with 75% of older white evangelicals but only 56% of all Americans ages 18-29.

And when it comes to abortion, younger white evangelicals are even more conservative than their older counterparts. For example, 70% of younger white evangelicals favor “making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion,” compared with 55% of older white evangelicals and 39% of young Americans overall who share this view.

This strong allegiance to conservatism and conservative positions suggests that young white evangelicals’ turn away from the president and his party may be the product of dissatisfaction with this particular administration rather than the result of an underlying shift in this group’s political values and policy views.