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GOP Faces Growing Challenge With Evangelical Voters

In the national political context evangelical voters and their core social issues hold some problems for the GOP.
A local resident marks her ballot at Michael J. Manatt Community Center Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Brooklyn, Iowa. Voters in Iowa will choose a new U.S. senator and decide races for governor, the U.S. House and legislative positions. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings) Darron Cummings / AP

Going by past experience, 2015 should be a good year for conservative evangelical voters. Their party of preference, the GOP, is in control of both houses of Congress and that means their issues should again be high on the agenda.

But things could be different in 2015 for social conservatives and the Republicans, as this week’s sudden changes in by House Republicans to weaken anti-abortion measures showed. The 2016 presidential election is weighing heavily on everyone’s minds and the numbers show that evangelical support – even strong evangelical support – is not enough to win the oval office in presidential years.

Evangelical voters still matter on Election Day. Exit polls show that their percentage of voters has held pretty steady at around 23% of the votes cast in recent years, according to exit polls in 2000 and later. And those voters are still overwhelmingly Republican in their predilections. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney won self-described “born again/evangelical” voters by about 59 percentage points.

But, of course, Romney lost that election to President Barack Obama. And when you look at recent elections through the prism of the American Communities Project at American University’s School of Public Affairs, you begin to understand how and why evangelicals may have lost some of their pull in the GOP.

The 372 counties called Evangelical Hubs in the ACP are solidly conservative and the people in them tend to hold positions that lean to the right on social issues. You can see them on this map in light purple.

Over the last four presidential elections the number of votes coming from those counties has grown, from about 4.3 million votes in 2000 to 4.9 million in 2012.

And the Republican lean in those counties has grown as well. In 2000, George W. Bush won them by about 20 percentage points – 59% to 39% for Democrat Al Gore. By 2012, Republican Mitt Romney won those counties by about 39 percentage points – 69% to 30% for President Barack Obama.

That’s a big swing to the Republican candidates. But in that same time Republicans have lost huge ground in Big City counties (in pink on the map) and the Urban Suburbs (in dark orange).

In 2000, Bush lost the Big Cities by about 21 points – 37% to 58% for Gore. In 2012, Romney lost those same counties to Mr. Obama by 31 points – 34% to 65%.

In the Urban Suburbs, the story was similar. In 2000, Bush lost the Urban Suburbs by about 11 points – 42% to 53%. In 2012, Romney lost them by 16 points – 41% to 57%.

Together the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs produced more than 46 million votes in 2012, far more than the Evangelical Hubs – and they stand in very different places on big social issues.

Consider abortion, this week’s focus of infighting for the House GOP majority. There is a wide gulf on the issue in different communities that has real impact on 2016.

In the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a massive social science survey, 54% in the Evangelical Hubs said abortion should be always or mostly illegal. The Big Cities and Urban Suburbs hold starkly different views. The two county types support keeping abortion always or mostly legal at respective rates of 71% and 70%.

And the splits don’t end there. On other big social issues, such as gay marriage, the divide is also sharp.

A merged set of Pew Research Center data from 2013 found that 61% in the Evangelical Hubs were opposed to gay marriage. Meanwhile, the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs strongly favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry – 63% and 64% support it respectively.

Furthermore, the issue problems for the GOP extend into communities that tend to support the party, but have different positions of social issues such as the Exurbs (in yellow on the map). The Exurbs voted for Mr. Romney by about 17 points in 2012, but the CCES and Pew polling data show that people in those places also tend to favor fewer restrictions on abortion and tend to support gay marriage.

When you add all those numbers up you understand how conservative evangelicals are still an important part of the Republican coalition, but an increasingly challenging one. In the national political context evangelical voters and their core social issues hold some problems for the GOP, and that may mean less influence in the new Congress in 2015.