Economy, shifting values and demographics drove Obama victory

By agency reporter
November 8, 2012

The Public Religion Research Institute, which looks at the intersection of religion, values and public life, will be releasing a new report in the aftermath of the US presidential election.

PRRI founding CEO Dr Robert P. Jones made an initial analysis and comment yesterday on the role that religion and values played in re-electing Barack Obama President of the United States.

He said: “While the economy, health care and the deficit were the leading issues that voters specifically cited as most important in this election, the results also signal historic shifts in values and demographics."

The importance of the economy is particularly clear in the strategically critical state of Ohio. According to the exit polls, 60 per cent of Ohio voters approve of the federal government's aid to US automakers, Dr Jones explained.

During focus groups PRRI conducted last weekend in Columbus among white working-class independent voters, the participants emphasised economic issues like jobs, the deficit and taxes as their highest-ranked priorities for this election.

However, this year’s election also ushered in a sea change on the issue of same-sex marriage, which was one of two issues at the tip of the spear in the 2004 “values voters” movement, he added.

The issue notably did not come up in debates this year and was not used as wedge issue. This has certainly not been the case in the past: in 2004 alone, 11 out of 11 ballot measures banning same-sex marriage passed. But opinions have shifted dramatically over the past several years. In national polling over the past year, PRRI has consistently seen pluralities or slim majorities saying they support allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry.

For the first time last night, same-sex marriage was passed by popular vote in Maine and Maryland; it may also pass in Washington State. Given younger Americans’ strong support for same-sex marriage, it seems unlikely that this issue will reappear as a major national wedge in the future.

There is also evidence that publicly expressing extreme views about abortion in cases of rape hurt Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, both of whom lost last night, and underperformed among white evangelical Protestants, a key Republican constituency. In Missouri, Akin trailed Romney's support among white evangelicals by 20 points (57 per cent versus 77 per cent). In Indiana, Mourdock lagged behind Romney among white evangelicals by 11 points (69 per cent versus 80 per cent).

Dr Jones said: "As I noted in a pre-election column, only about one-quarter (24 per cent) of white evangelical Protestants agree that abortion should be illegal in all cases, and politicians who stake out positions in this rarified territory can expect to lose support."

Finally, he pointed out, the changing demographics of the country, and the values held by different demographic groups, also cannot be underestimated. The early exit polls show a nearly linear relationship between age and Republican support. Obama won younger voters under 30 by 23 points, while Romney won seniors by 12 points. And this year, as in 2008, younger voters turned out, rivaling seniors as a proportion of the electorate.

Another key value in this election is the treatment of immigration and other issues important to Latino voters, who now constitute 10 per cent of all voters. Nearly two-thirds of voters say illegal immigrants should be granted some legal status, and those voters strongly supported Obama. While George W. Bush won 44 per cent of Latino voters in 2004, Romney won less than three -in-10, said Dr Jones.

Next week Public Religion Research Institute will release post-election research which it says will confirm the role religion, values and economic issues played in the 2012 election, as well as explore what expectations Americans have for the next Congress and new administration.

PRRI’s new research will specifically look ahead to the upcoming showdown over budget priorities; explore Americans’ attitudes about the best ways to promote economic growth, support for investment spending on infrastructure, and support for spending cuts to help reduce the deficit.

Their research draws on findings from a new post-election survey of Ohio voters, focus groups of white working-class voters in Ohio and Hispanics in North Carolina, and call-back interviews from its pre-election American Values Survey released in October.

The Public Religion Research Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organisation specializing in research at the intersection of US religion, values and public life.

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