We welcome a guest post by Daniel Cox.  He is the Co-founder and Research Director of the Public Religion Research Institute and a Ph.D. candidate in American Government at Georgetown University.

Political pollsters (like myself) spend an inordinate amount of effort gauging the American electorate’s vote intentions. We often focus on the salient issues of the campaign and assess how each issue will drive voters toward or repel them from a candidate. In 2012, many political reporters suggested that the issue of Israel would be pivotal for Jewish Americans, and it did feature prominently in both campaigns. Yet in the end, the issue did not seem to affect the voting decisions of most Jewish voters, 69% of whom backed President Obama. If the question of Israel did not move many Jewish voters, what did? Although it was not discussed widely during the campaign, one of the most influential factors for Jewish voters was the Christian Right.

It is not difficult to see why coverage of issues and campaign events tends to dominate an election cycle. Structural forces that are unperturbed by campaign events make poor copy. Still, in the case of Jewish voters, the close association between the GOP and the Christian Right proved to be profoundly important. And this shouldn’t be surprising. Research by Green, Palmquist and Schickler (2002) demonstrates that partisan attachment is constructed through a process of social group assessment. In determining where they stand politically, Americans assess what social groups they belong to or identify with, and how those groups relate to each of the parties.

Few social groups are further apart in their politics than conservative Christians and Jews. In 2012, the Public Religion Research Institute conducted a survey of Jewish voters. That survey painted a portrait of a group that remains one of the most socially liberal in the U.S. American Jews strongly support legal abortion (93% say it should be legal in all or most cases) and favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry (81%). Conservative Christians, by contrast, are strongly opposed to same-sex marriage (78%), and most believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases (65%). However, the two groups are not just divided on social issues. Both groups also embrace very different perspectives on cultural pluralism, religious traditionalism, and church-state separation issues.

Given the substantial cultural and political gulf separating these two groups, it’s not surprising that Jewish Americans hold cool feelings toward the Christian Right. Our Jewish Values Survey found that on average, the Christian Right scored only 20.9 on a 100-point “feeling thermometer” scale among Jews, well below Muslims (41.4) and Mormons (47). Nearly one in five (19%) Jews gave the Christian Right the lowest score possible (1). In fact, no political or religious group scored lower among Jews than the Christian Right.

In 2012, these negative feelings about the Christian Right appear to have had significant consequences at the ballot box. Among Jewish voters, feelings about the Christian Right were strongly predictive of voting preferences, even when controlling for party identification, age, education, and other characteristics. Jewish voters who harbored very cool feelings toward the Christian Right (a rating of 1-9) had just a 9% probability of supporting the GOP candidate. Among those who rated the group neutrally or higher (50+), the average probability of supporting the Republican candidate was 69%. Not only were feelings toward the Christian Right a significant predictor of voting preference, they were among the strongest predictors. Only partisan affiliation, specifically identifying as a Democrat, had a stronger impact.

Although in recent years conservative Christians have been outshone by the Tea Party, they remain a potent force in American politics as the bedrock of Republican Party’s electoral coalition. They are sometimes discussed as independent movements, but our recent surveys have found that the Tea Party and Christian conservatives are in fact constituencies with overlapping memberships. The 2010 American Values Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, found that nearly half (47%) of Americans who identified with the Tea Party also identified with the Christian Right. Self-identified conservative Christians are also more than twice the size of the Tea Party movement. Christian conservatives remain among the most reliable Republican voters and staunch allies of conservative causes; their views on important social issues like abortion are part of the national party platform.

Over the last 20 years, the Republican electoral coalition has remained relatively stable, while the Democratic coalition has undergone a dramatic transformation. In 1992, exit polls showed that 86% of George H. W. Bush’s voters identified as white Christians, making the GOP of that era nearly identical to Romney’s supporters, 81% of whom were white Christians. Clinton’s coalition in 1992, which also relied heavily on white Christian voters (60%), was starkly different than the one that re-elected Barack Obama. Only 39% of Obama’s voters identified as white Christians in 2012.

The challenge confronting the GOP as it attempts to broaden its base is not limited to Jewish voters. A survey conducted by Pew last year found that more than six in ten (61%) non-Christian affiliated Americans (a group that includes Hindus, Jews and Muslims) agreed that “religious conservatives have too much control over the Republican Party.” Nearly two-thirds of religiously unaffiliated Americans also affirmed this statement. These groups are among the fastest-growing religious communities in the U.S. And if the GOP is serious about appealing to these voters, its candidates must navigate the difficult path of keeping conservative Christians engaged and committed while not appearing beholden to them.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Dan Hopkins

Dan Hopkins is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.