The History of the evangelical vote in presidential elections

What is the history of the crucial Evangelical Christian vote and where is it likely to go in the upcoming showdown between John McCain and Barack Obama?


The chart below, prepared by a team I put together for NEWSMAX and appearing in their current issue, offers the most comprehensive and accurate account of the white born again vote in modern presidential elections.  It is a first of a kind and much needed to understand how this vote has evolved.


Interpreting the numbers from public polls and numbers recently released from the two political campaigns can be an exasperating business.  Almost unanimously, the polling companies, television news services and journalists are getting it wrong.


The White Born-Again Vote, 1976 – 2004


  1976 1980 1984 1988 1992* 1996 2000 2004
Republican 50% 61% 78% 81% 59% 49% 57% 62%
Democratic 50% 34% 22% 18% 21% 43% 42% 38%

*In 1992, Ross Perot’s independent candidacy drew 19 percent of the born-again white vote.



Some of the confusion is due to an evolving understanding of the evangelical movement.  For example, early CBS exit polls confused the terms “born again” with “fundamentalist” obtaining a skewed figure as a result.


Likewise, in 1996, a CNN-Time magazine exit poll asked voters if they were members of “the religious right.”  An astounding 65% of this group voted for Robert Dole, even greater than Ronald Reagan’s 1980 born again vote.  But only the most ardent of conservative evangelicals would identify with the words “religious right” which the others would see as pejorative terms.  Of more use for our purposes were Robert Dole’s take of the white born again numbers in 1996 which come in at only 49%.


False numbers in the George W. Bush era.


But the biggest cause of polling error in recent years and during the 2008 campaign has been the change from “born again” to “evangelical” voter.


Since 2000, many media polling organizations have begun asking voters if they are “evangelical.”  They might as well have asked if they were choleric or phlegmatic. Not everyone knows the terms and others wouldn’t know how to define themselves.  In this case the pollsters were too ignorant of religion to know what to ask.  The result for this polling question is only useful for analyzing the more active and politically savvy of the movement but it does not work well in comparing the outcome to previous election cycles when the question was, “are you a white born again Christian.”


The fact is that many evangelicals do not see themselves as evangelicals, even though outsiders would define them as such.  They consider themselves as Southern Baptists, or Nazarene, or Assemblies of God or Charismatic or some other denomination or grouping.  Some only know that they attend that church down the street.  To pollsters, they will identify themselves as born again Christians but not always as an evangelical.  Thus a Pew Research survey of 2000 and 2004 will show George W. Bush as carrying an impressive 68% and 78% of the “evangelical” vote, missing the dramatic changes in the movement that the Barna poll showed clearly when it found that white born again Christians voted for Bush at a more modest rate of 57% and 62% respectively.


Gallup is best


The Gallup organization is by far the most reliable in these kinds of surveys because it has been polling religion for decades and only as a sociological interest.  Their polls are not funded or commissioned by a particular group or sponsor.  Gallup’s question has evolved into: “Are you a born again Christian, that is, have you had a turning point in your life in which you have committed to Jesus Christ, and, or, are you and evangelical?”  Thus Gallup defines what “evangelical” means for the person who is being polled.


For understanding the current 2008 campaign and the evolution of the evangelical movement, my chart uses the same criteria for each of the election cycles. Finally, historians and journalists trying to understand this election in the context of the past generation have data that compares oranges with oranges.  It is the first chart of its kind and it accurately tracks the white born again Christian vote since 1976.


My sources


Almost all the data is on the public record.  It is taken from network exit polls, private surveys, campaign documents on file in presidential libraries, and numerous research organizations.  Sources include, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Time magazine, The New York Times, The Times Mirror Organization, the Pew Research Organization and Barna.  But it is also buttressed by privately commissioned, non public Gallup polls, public Gallup polls and numerous internal campaign memorandum from presidential campaigns.  When there was conflicting numbers, I sided with at least three different sources.


During this process my team and I personally interviewed individual participants in the various network exit polls of the past years, the computer programmers who wrote the software and some of the journalists who helped develop the questions.  As evangelical viewers are well aware by the reporting during this election cycle, media ignorance of religion in general and evangelicals in particular is almost breathtaking, and this is certainly reflected in their sincere but inept attempt to understand the emerging numbers.  My team also interviewed the religious liaisons of six of the recent presidential campaigns.



Published by Doug Wead

Doug Wead is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, Game of Thorns, is about the Trump-Clinton 2016 election. He served as an adviser to two American presidents and was a special assistant to the president in the George H.W. Bush White House.

9 thoughts on “The History of the evangelical vote in presidential elections

  1. The campaigns have a “religious liaison,” how funny. There IS a huge pool of ignorance on matters of religion and they are the ones out of touch. This is still a God-fearing nation with the decency that goes with it – regardless of the representations and lifestyles of those who appear to have the mike.

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