Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Steven Waldman Headshot

The Religious Left is As Big As The Religious Right

Posted: Updated:

In 2004, it occurred to us at Beliefnet that most of the media viewed the religious-political landscape as having two groups: The Religious Right and Everyone Else. The reality was a bit more complicated so we "discovered" the Twelve Tribes of American politics, a more nuanced goruping.

The 2008 results have just been published. Among the interesting findings is that the Religious Left makes up about 12.7% -- the Religious Right, 12.9% In the past, the Religious Right exerted more influence, of course, but there are signs that this year may be different.

One reason for the waning influence of the Religious Rigth is that, according to the Twelve Tribes study (based on a survey conducted by John Green of University of Akron), even the most observant religious folks are focused more on the economy and less on moral issues such as abortion and gay rights.Overall, just 13% of voters now listed moral issues as their primary concern, half the percentage who did in 2004. Even among members of the Religious Right, the percentage emphasizing social issues plummeted from 50.7% to 37.2%,

This has had many effects, one of the most significant being that it's allowed for a massive shift of Hispanics to the Democratic Party.

Because it was a trend spotted early in the campaign, analysts have stopped talking about it. But if Obama wins, one of the main reasons may be a massive shift in the Latino vote.

In 2004, Bush won 45% of Latinos. According to the new Twelve Tribes analysis, Obama is beating McCain by more than two-to-one -- and Latino voters are becoming more numerous.

Significantly, the big shift came not from Latino Catholics but Latino Protestants many of whom are evangelical or Pentecostal and had liked Bush's faith emphasis. But right now 33% of Latino Protestants are for McCain, 48% for Obama and 18% are undecided. By comparison, at this point in 2004 Bush had 50%, Kerry had 26% and 24% were undecided. And on election day it was 63% Bush, 37% Kerry.

The loss of Latinos has been mostly ascribed to the perception that the Republican Party is anti-immigrant. If true, it will be ironic that McCain is the main one being punished since for years he was trying to lead the Republican party in a more moderate direction. But he may have forfeited the chance of winning large numbers of Latinos during the primaries when he took a much harder line on immigration in order to win over conservatives.

However, the Twelve Tribes analysis shows that the Latino shift was about far more than immigration. While they remained conservative on abortion and gay rights, they've shifted sharply to the left on economics and foreign policy. Only 37% now say the war was justified (the national average now is 45%). Though the survey doesn't probe this deeply, it's notable that many Hispanics have been among the ranks of the American soldiers who have died in Iraq.

Since the main move was among Latino Protestants, it may also be that Obama's emphasis on his personal faith and/or McCain's lack of religious expression contributed to the change. All in all, the numbers better resemble the 2000 election when Latinos voted for Al Gore.

Two sharp warnings lights for Democrats: Latinos remain very conservative on abortion and gay rights, and are culturally conservative in general. If Obama is perceived as moving too far to the left on cultural issues, he'll risk support among Latinos.

Second, in the last election Latino's didn't turn out to vote. They represented 7.3% of the population but 5% of the electorate. The fate of states like Nevada, New Mexico, Florida may hinge on Hispanic turnout.

More on the Twelve Tribes on Beliefnet.