POLITICS
12/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Obama Closed The "God Gap"

Steven Waldman is president and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.com, and author of Founding Faith. Previously the national editor of U.S. News & World Report, he is a recognized expert on religion, social issues and politics. Click here for Mr. Waldman's full bio.

Though the economy clearly was the defining issue of the election, Barack Obama forged a new coalition by luring millions of religious voters who had avoided Democrats in recent years.

Here's what Sen. Obama did:

He narrowed the God Gap.

President George W. Bush beat Sen. John Kerry among weekly churchgoers by 61%-39% four years ago. Election night, Republican Sen. John McCain was ahead of Sen. Obama among the same group 54%-44%. Most of that gain appears to have come from Protestants rather than Catholics.

He won Catholics back.

Early exit polls indicate he won 54% of the Catholic vote compared with 45% for Sen. McCain. Mr. Bush won the Catholic vote 52%-46%. Most of those gains came from Catholics who don't attend Mass weekly.

He also attracted a a greater portion of vote among white Catholics, according to the early exit polls. Mr. Bush got 56%-43% of the Catholic vote, while Sen. McCain lead by just 51%-49%. This was despite an aggressive push by more than 50 Catholic bishops to encourage Catholics to focus on abortion as the election's central issue.

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