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updated 9/22/2004 6:48:35 PM ET 2004-09-22T22:48:35

Polling tells us that these days, voting has less to do with where someone goes to church, than how often. "Polling data is showing us is that Americans who go to Church most often are the people who actually vote more Republican," says Michael Cromartie of  Ethics & Public Policy Center.

In 2000, people who went to church once a week voted overwhelmingly for George Bush:  57 to 40 percent.  Those who went more than once a week voted for Bush by 63 to 36%.

Al Gore’s supporters?  Voters who seldom or never attended services preferred the Democrat almost two to one. So it would be nothing short of miraculous for Kerry to have a shot at winning Utah, a.k.a.,  Bush country. The dominant Mormon Church is the fastest-growing in the country, and 88 percent voted for Bush in 2000.

But then, there’s what has been disparagingly referred to as the “godless Northwest.”  In Washington, just 31 percent of resident belong to a church.  And in Oregon,  33 percent, the city of Medford’s numbers are lower than anywhere else in the country. These states haven’t voted for a Republican for President since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Down South, it’s devotedly Baptist. The faith predominates in eight of the 11 states of the old confederacy. George Bush may be Methodist, but his born-again status plays into the conservative feel here, and Kerry forays into this territory hasn’t made these voters.

The Northeast is home to many members of the country’s largest denomination— Catholics, 60 million strong, among them, Boston’s John Kerry, a former altar boy who once thought of becoming a priest.  But in 2000, the Catholic vote split at just about 50/50.

“The Catholic vote is a critical swing vote,” says John Podesta, Center for American Progress and former Clinton chief of staff. “Middle class values and family values are things that motivate Catholic voters.”

This religious divide helps the parties track who they want to get to the polls.

Consider Christian evangelicals, core Republican voters: Here’s a shocker –  4 million of them didn’t vote in 2000.  Ralph Reed, the former leader of the Christian Coalition who now runs the Bush campaign in the southeast, says that’s going to change.

“Obviously we don’t ask the question but based on how they self-identify as they join our team, it looks like about a third of all the new voters we’re registering are conservative people of faith,” says Ralph Reed, Bush-Cheney ’04 Southeast director. “I am confident that we’re going to do much better among voters of faith in 04 than we did in 2000.”

What’s clear in 2004, is that the search for votes is intersecting with American’s search for meaning in a troubled and complex world.

“At a time of enormous uncertainty and fear, people will rely on those primal resources for comfort, for meaning, for order,” says Robert Franklin, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center and Emory University Social Ethics Professor. “I think religion provides precisely those goods.”

The victory may go to the candidate who delivers just that.

There is one more change worth noting: Research shows that voters all religions are becoming more tolerant. The lesson in that for the candidates is to avoid the appearance of extremism whether talking about secular or religious issues.

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