No, the GOP is Not Losing Young Christians

Monday, Matt Lewis penned the latest in a long line of the GOP is losing young Christians articles. It is actually a superior piece to many of its kind because it considers how the Christian mandate to “live at peace with all men” weighs against unchecked descent into no-holds-barred political combat. Unless care is taken, Christian politicos may become “wise as serpents, but no longer innocent as doves,” Lewis writes, “For what shall it profit a man if he should win an election, but lose his soul.”

But as poignant as that reminder is, Lewis uses it to support his thesis that “many young Christians are choosing to be conscientious objectors in the culture wars” because  they find “political involvement, no matter how pure the original motives, [to be] a corrupting force.” Appearing on Morning Joe to talk about his column, he proceded to explain that some of these disaffected folks may join the Democrats provided they “field candidates like Obama” while others will disengage from political activity altogether. Jonathan Merritt went even further writing that young Christians turned off by “the dumpster fire that is Washington D.C.” were going to make the GOP pay in the coming years.

The reality is that young evangelicals have not actually moved substantially away from the GOP during the Obama era. Indeed, I am so firmly convinced of this fact that I have no choice but to bust out a couple of homemade infographics. (Drastic measures, I know.)

First, extrapolating from the exit polls and final turnout, my first infographic shows how many white Evangelicals voted for Bush, Bush, McCain, and Romney respectively.EvVote

Just to be clear, that’s the Romney bar peaking higher than any other bar. And Obama’s much-touted Evangelical appeal does not look like much of a blip on the trendline. If you’re looking for decline or white Evangelicals abandoning the GOP, I sure don’t see it here.

This is doubly surprising because it isn’t like McCain and Romney were Evangelical dream candidates. McCain once called Evangelicals in politics “agents of intolerance” and Romney was a “Satan and Jesus are brothers” Mormon. But despite these warts, Obama has proven unable to make any significant inroads in appealing to White Evangelicals.

Yes, there are some Evangelicals who voted for Obama but there were Evangelicals who voted for Bill Clinton and Walter Mondale, too. Over time, there has been a persistent—though perhaps slowly evaporating—minority of Evangelical voters who support Democrats in presidential elections. This doesn’t prove that Obama has proven to possess any specific electoral appeal.

Measuring Young Evangelicals Against Their Peers

But the stats in my first graph are about all white Evangelicals as a whole. Isn’t it the young Christians who are being lost by the GOP?

There is an oft-quoted factoid that Obama did twice as well with young Evangelicals in 2008, than Kerry had in 2004. Here’s an infographic featuring that fact courtesy of the New York Times.

This is true, but, as they say, context is everything. We shouldn’t be looking at the young Evangelical shift in a vacuum. Bush’s narrow reelection over Kerry and Obama’s clear-cut victory over McCain were very different elections. Indeed, young people as a whole voted for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin after only narrowly going for Kerry four years before.

Thus focusing on Obama doubling Kerry’s support among young Evangelicals misses that even at the height Obamamania Evangelical young people were still much more likely to vote GOP than everyone else their age. Behold, here comes another infographic.2004-2008-compare

I’ve listed the Democrat percentage by age group in both the 2004 and 2008 election. White Evangelicals are the dark gray bars and all voters are represented in orange. Thus, the amount of orange we see represents the gap between overall support for the Democratic candidate to white Evangelical support. For example, in 2008, Obama received 32 percent from 18-29 white Evangelicals while receiving 66 percent from 18-29 year olds overall, resulting in an enormous 34-point gap.

As you can see, in both 2004 and 2008, the youngest age cohort has the biggest orange bar. That means that young Evangelicals are the most counter culturally Republican; they are the furthest to the right of the political center of gravity of their peers.

Unfortunately, I cannot update this to reflect the 2012 data. The exit poll consortium did not see fit to supply the necessary crosstabulations for religion and age. However, an election eve poll showed white Evangelical 18-29 year olds going for Romney by an overwhelming 80-15 margin while Obama ended up winning 60 percent of all 18-29 year olds. It is a pretty safe bet that those orange bars wouldn’t be any smaller.

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It isn’t that any of this is very new to the attentive Mere Orthodoxy reader. Let’s just add this data to all that has been ably said here by Messrs. Anderson, Walker, and Domenech about the political proclivities of young Evangelicals. I still think that Matt Lewis’ piece was a great volley in this conversation and hope merely that my pretty infographics serve to remind that despite all the chatter, young Evangelicals are still very reliable Republican voters.

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  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    As a Democrat that considers myself an evangelical I think you are largely right. Although talking about elections, when Merritt and Lewis are talking about something more recent than the 2012 election.

    But I also think there are probably two more subtle things going on here. I pushed Merritt a bit on this and realized I had misread him after he responded. What he was primarily talking about was identification, not voting. There is some evidence that people are identifying more as independents, but practically are still voting Republican.

    The second thing that is not taken to account in your post, but I think Merritt and Lewis are hinting at is a movement (although it is probably slight) away from the term Evangelical in part because of politics. So your infographics would not show any difference among people that no longer identified themselves as Evangelical.

    I know I have had more than one person assert that it is not possible to be an Evangelical and a Democrat to me personally. And I certainly can see among my group of friends that many that self identify as Democrat are having a hard time with self identifying as Evangelical.

    I don’t think this is a large group. But I do think it is a real group of primarily urban, well educated Whites.

    (And I do want to throw in the caveat that there are all kinds of non-whites that self identify as both democrat and evangelical, but for sociological reasons we keep separating out as being somehow not Evangelical.)

    • Keith Miller

      Great points, Adam.

      The fact that some folks see “Evangelical” and “Democrat” as mutually exclusive labels is an interesting phenomenon. Each of those labels refers to diverse coalitions such that I can still conceive of where the two circles overlap, but it does seem like some core ideological commitments of the “mainstream member” of each group are at odds.

      I agree that it is lame that the exit polls exclude non-whites when reporting their numbers on Evangelicals, especially considering non-Hispanic Whites make up only 81% of the attendees at Evangelical churches according to Pew (http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/comparison-Racial%20and%20Ethnic%20Composition%20of%20Religious%20Traditions.pdf).

  • http://www.seeprestonblog.com Preston Yancey

    Isn’t there a problem with pushing back against voices that say young Christians are leaving the GOP by using data that is self-confessed only representative of white evangelicals? I’m not convinced young Christians are leaving the GOP either, but the use of that particular strand of data implicitly equates young Christians with young white evangelicals.

    • Eugene Scott

      Couldn’t have said it better myself. At this point in the conversation, the prevalence of the blind spots is baffling.

    • Keith Miller

      Preston and Eugene,

      If we’re talking about young Christians who have previously been loyal foot-soldiers for the GOP, we’re largely talking about white Evangelical young Christians. To call that group “young Christians” is a synecdoche, for sure, but it captures the ways pundits talk about this.

      There are three groups of young Christians who are excluded from the data I consider: 1) Roman Catholics, 2) black, hispanic, and other minority Protestants, and 3) white Mainline protestants. When pundits talk about the first group, they almost always use the term “Catholic.” And the latter groups have simply not made up a substantial part of the GOP coalition at any time in this century. Thus, these numbers are responsive to the argument advanced by Mr. Lewis (he said so himself).

      As I noted elsewhere in the comments, I would very much prefer to analyze data on young Evangelicals that is inclusive of blacks and hispanics, but I don’t have access to those numbers at this time.

  • http://theivorylighthouse.blogspot.com/ SJ

    Still I’m not entirely sure what there is to rejoice about. Huzzah, white evangelicals of the next generation appear to be voting along with their forefathers, a good indication that we will be as divided 50 years from now as we are today. I know this is my own personal bias as an independent but isn’t it some what alarming the growing disparity between young democrats and young conservatives? Mainly because of the EQUAL blame that needs to be put on our representatives heads. It is another unfortunate part of the nature of blogs that we are only hearing how it is either “all the damn republicans fault” or “Obama is the Antichrist.” In reality, if someone is following and understanding the utterly fantastic problem we are in the middle of, they won’t be able to write it to the length of a blog post. Our education in this matter should be far more stirring than the stats of hopeful new teaparty-anarchists.

    • run262

      I find it interesting that you advocate a more balanced approach, which I agree with, yet engage in hyperbole by calling the Tea Party anarchists. If true understanding and conversation between the two sides is to occur, the name-calling and false accusations need to stop.

  • Run262

    Very interesting data. I am a political conservative, but equally disgusted with both parties. It is all about big government and crony capitalism among the leadership in both parties. Few honest men/women exist in DC unfortunately. I have to admit, the more independent nature of the Tea Party appeals to me more.

  • Mike

    I’m not sure everyone is talking about the same thing and same people. The definitions for Evangelical and Christian vary even among people within the same congregation.

    I’m not even sure what to say about how closely white, GOP and evangelical seem to be tied as if they are synonymous or interchangeable.

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