updated 2/3/2005 10:54:04 AM ET 2005-02-03T15:54:04

John Kerry managed the best showing in decades for a Democratic presidential candidate among mainline Protestants, but his failure to capture a majority of Roman Catholics — people of his own faith — gave President Bush an important advantage in last November’s election, according to a new survey.

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Bush’s showing also improved dramatically among Hispanic Protestants, 63 percent of whom supported him in 2004 — a 31 percent gain over 2000.

The postelection phone survey of 2,730 people, conducted by the University of Akron and sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, is a close study of voting behavior and religious faith.

Among non-Hispanic Catholics, Kerry won the support of 69 percent with those with liberal or “modernist” beliefs, while 72 percent of “traditionalists” favored Bush. But importantly, 55 percent of the key swing group of “centrists” picked Bush over Kerry, who was criticized by bishops for his support of abortion rights.

The upshot: A one-time Democratic mainstay, Catholics gave Bush an overall edge of 53 percent to Kerry’s 47 percent.

Overall, the mainline Protestant vote split evenly, the poll found, with a Bush decline of 10 percent from 2000 and the best showing for a Democrat since the 1960s; results before then are unclear.

Liberal, conservative divide deepens
Divisions between religious liberals and conservatives were even more stark than they were four years ago.

“The American religious landscape was strongly polarized in the 2004 presidential vote and more so than in 2000,” concluded the team of four political scientists, led by Akron’s John C. Green.

The scholars said Bush’s religious constituency included Christian traditionalists in all categories, Mormons, Hispanic Protestants and religious centrists among Catholics and mainline Protestants.

Kerry’s support came from black Protestants and secular Americans, followed by “modernists” among Catholics and mainline Protestants. Jews and Latino Catholics remained loyally Democratic.

Other questions focused on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, which were thought to be crucial when Nov. 2 exit polls showed “moral values” were more important to voters than Iraq, terrorism or the economy.

The study concluded that “social issues were quite important to the Bush vote, but a secondary factor for the electorate as a whole.”

The quadrennial Akron surveys are notable for careful interviewing on respondents’ precise religious affiliations and religious views and activities. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

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