GOP=God's Only Party?

Author: John Monczunski

David Campbell, Notre Dame associate professor of political science, is the editor of the essay collection A Matter of Faith: Religion in the 2004 Presidential Election (Brookings Institution Press), which examines the role of churches in the last election. Recently, we asked Campbell for his thoughts on religion in the current campaign.

CompeNDium: The Republican party is widely regarded as the more religion-friendly party today. Why is that?

Campbell: The GOP has nurtured that image, and it’s become part of their brand identity. Their faith-and-values emphasis actually may have hit a high point in the 2004 campaign when Republican strategists decided to focus on turning out their base. The idea was to micro-target Republican-prone groups like social conservatives—many of whom are evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics—and emphasize positions dear to them. That was achieved most famously in 2004 by linking George W. Bush with opposition to gay marriage. The irony is that President Bush rarely talked about faith and values in his more public addresses. Those appeals came mostly from party literature micro-targeted to these groups And the strategy worked, so now most voters see Republicans as more sympathetic to religion.

ND: Lately the Democrats seem to have found religion, too.

Campbell: We’re seeing a bit of a role reversal with the Democrats—Hillary, Obama, Edwards—talking up their religious faith. Meanwhile none of the Republican frontrunners are naturals at it the way George W. Bush was. Rudy Giuliani because he really is not a social conservative. John McCain votes like a social conservative but never has made his religion a primary part of his appeal, and Fred Thompson doesn’t have the history of being a churchgoer. The one exception is Mitt Romney, who is quite religious. Since he’s Mormon and some members of his party are uneasy with his faith, Romney is not inclined to talk about it.

ND: So the Democrats may win the religious vote?

Campbell: They don’t have the religion-friendly brand label like the Republicans. What happens when you hear “God talk” from a candidate representing a party without that bundle of images in voters’ minds? We’re not sure how voters will respond to this. It could mean that religion is off the table. That’s unlikely. My hunch is that Republicans will continue to pick up the church-going vote. That’s been the case for a number of elections, and these things don’t change that rapidly. Democrats will never win over the hardcore social conservatives. I think they hope to persuade just enough religious folks in the middle. If they can do that, it could be a successful strategy.