Updated Nov. 10, 20081

President-elect Barack Obama made a concerted effort to reach out to people of faith during the 2008 presidential campaign, and early exit polls show that this outreach may have paid off on Election Day. Among nearly every religious group, the Democratic candidate received equal or higher levels of support compared with the 2004 Democratic nominee, John Kerry. Still, a sizeable gap persists between the support Obama received from white evangelical Protestants and his support among the religiously unaffiliated. Similarly, a sizeable gap exists between those who attend religious services regularly and those who attend less often.

Religious Affiliation and the Vote

In Obama’s victory over Republican nominee John McCain, the Democrats’ largest gains (eight percentage points) were seen among those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion; fully three-quarters of this group supported Obama. This group was also a big part of the Democratic coalition in the previous two presidential elections, 61% having supported Al Gore in 2000 and 67% having supported Kerry in 2004.
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Catholics, too, moved noticeably in a Democratic direction in 2008; overall, Catholics supported Obama over McCain by a nine-point margin (54% vs. 45%). By contrast, four years ago, Catholics favored Republican incumbent George W. Bush over Kerry by a five-point margin (52% to 47%).

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Though precise figures are not available, early exit poll data suggests that Obama performed particularly well among Latino Catholics. Overall, the national exit poll shows that more than two-thirds of Latinos (67%) voted for Obama over McCain, a 14-point Democratic gain over estimates from the 2004 national exit poll. Meanwhile, Obama’s four-point gain among white Catholics (compared with their vote for Kerry) is smaller than the gain seen among Catholics overall. In fact, as in 2004, white Catholics once again favored the Republican candidate, though by a much smaller margin (five-point Republican advantage in 2008 vs. 13-point advantage in 2004).

In addition to his gains among the religiously unaffiliated and Catholic voters, Obama also performed somewhat better than Kerry among Protestants. Overall, 45% of Protestants voted for the Democrat, an increase of five points since 2004. Obama’s gains were smaller among white Protestants, however, with 34% voting for him, compared with 32% who voted for Kerry. This suggests that much of Obama’s gains among Protestants overall were concentrated among non-whites. Interestingly, Obama’s gains were among white evangelical Protestants (5 points), a traditionally Republican constituency, rather than among white Protestants who do not describe themselves as evangelical or born-again (no gain).

Nevertheless, a gap persists between the votes of white evangelical Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated population. In 2008, 26% of white evangelicals voted for Obama as did 75% of the religiously unaffiliated, for a gap of 49 points. This gap is slightly larger than the 46-point gap in 2004, when 21% of white evangelicals voted for Kerry, compared with 67% of the unaffiliated.

Religious Attendance and the Vote

Just as Obama made gains among most religious traditions, he also held steady or improved over Kerry’s 2004 support among people of all levels of religious observance. More than four-in-ten people (43%) who attend religious services regularly, that is, once a week or more, supported Obama, compared with 39% who supported Kerry. Obama’s gains were particularly pronounced among the subgroup who attends religious services most often – that is, more than once a week; 43% of this group supported Obama, up from 35% who supported Kerry in 2004. Obama also received support from nearly six-in-ten voters (57%) who attend church occasionally (a few times a month or a few times a year), while Kerry won 53% of this group. Additionally, Obama was supported by two-thirds of voters (67%) who say they never attend religious services, compared with 62% who voted for Kerry.
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While the Democrats gained support since 2004 among people of all levels of religious observance, the exit poll data also show that those who attend worship services regularly voted differently than those who attend worship services less often, as was the case in 2004. In 2008, 43% of weekly churchgoers voted for Obama, as did 67% of those who never attend worship services, for an “attendance gap” of 24 points. By comparison, 39% of weekly churchgoers voted for Kerry in 2004, compared with 62% of those who never attend religious services, for a similar attendance gap of 23 points.

Overall, these data suggest that Obama was successful at retaining – and even increasing – Democratic support among constituencies that typically support Democrats at very high rates (for example, those who rarely attend religious services and the religiously unaffiliated) while also making some inroads among groups that have tended in recent years to be more supportive of Republican candidates (for example, white evangelicals and those who attend worship services on a regular basis).

Religious Composition of the Electorate

Exit polling reveals that the religious makeup of the 2008 electorate largely resembles the composition of the electorate in 2004. The Catholic share of the electorate held steady (27%). Voters unaffiliated with any particular religion made up a slightly larger proportion of the electorate (12% in 2008 vs. 10% in 2004), and white evangelical voters accounted for nearly one-fourth of the electorate this year (23%), compared with 20% four years ago. By contrast, voters who attend religious services more than once a week made up a slightly smaller portion of the electorate in 2008 (12%) compared with 2004 (16%). Otherwise, there were few changes among voters in self-reported levels of religious observance.

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1This analysis was originally published on Nov. 5, 2008. It was updated on Nov. 10 to reflect re-weighting of 2008 exit polls by the National Election Pool (NEP), the consortium of news organizations that conducts the exit polls. If data are re-weighted again, the numbers reported here may differ slightly from figures accessible through the websites of NEP member organizations.

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