A number of political observers are talking about “the evangelical vote” and what it may mean in the upcoming presidential election campaign. It is commonly acknowledged that America’s fastest-growing religious configuration is the evangelical Protestant community, whose current size is usually estimated to be some 40 million members—or at least 20 per cent of the population. If this percentage is projected to the electorate, it means that of, say, 80 million votes cast in the presidential election, 16 million will be by members of evangelical churches (both inside and outside the big denominations) and by those who identify with evangelical cultural traditions.

Evangelical voters are strongly concentrated in eleven southern states and six border ones (Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Oklahoma). They are also found in fairly large numbers in several midwestern and north-central states (such as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska). The southern and border states have 177 electoral votes, and Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska have 33, for a total of 210. This is short of the 270 needed for election, but evangelicals in other states (Ohio and Pennsylvania, for example) could provide the victory margin in a close election.

It is the candidacy of former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday-school teacher (see May 7 issue, page 37), that has people talking about a possible evangelical voting bloc. Carter’s public expression of down-home religious commitment has raised questions—and eyebrows—for some voters (especially Jewish ones), but it has unquestionably gained him evangelical support. Evangelicals and Carter speak the same born-again, Christ-is-my-Saviour language.

Do people still tend to vote for a co-religionist, as Catholics did for Al Smith in 1928 (85–90 per cent) and for John F. Kennedy in 1960 (78 per cent)? The Catholic faith itself came under attack during these campaigns, and this may account in part for the strong bloc votes. Correspondingly, there is evidence of a rather large Protestant vote against both Smith and Kennedy. An analysis of the data by this correspondent suggests that possibly 26 million of the 68 million votes cast in the Kennedy-Nixon race in 1960 were determined to some extent by the religious issue.

An accurate answer to the question will have to await the outcome of the election, but the results of the primaries thus far indicate that many grass-roots Christian believers—including a surprising number of Catholics—do indeed see Carter as “their” man.

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Iowa gave Carter his first big victory. Former Iowa senator Harold Hughes endorsed no candidates, but press stories of Hughes’s conversion to Christ, his nurture of converted Watergate figure Charles Colson, and a mission work he started in Washington undoubtedly helped to create understanding and acceptance of Carter’s religious position.

In the Pennsylvania primary, Carter had to meet a determined challenge from the labor-political establishment, which generally favored Senator Henry Jackson in the absence of Hubert Humphrey. (Jackson, a Presbyterian, alluded to the religious issue in an April statement: “When a fellow starts telling how religious he is, I sort of become suspicious. I’ve taught Sunday school, but I’m not making my relationship with the Lord an issue in this campaign.”)

Carter won a decisive victory in Pennsylvania and carried all but two of the state’s counties. There are eighteen counties in the state where large percentages of the population are members of evangelical Protestant churches. Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians predominate. In these counties, Carter did extremely well, carrying them with an overall 51.6 per cent of the vote cast for the four major candidates, compared to 40.3 per cent statewide. Carter showed unusual strength in some counties, polling 73 per cent in Fulton County and 59 per cent in Lycoming County. He also did well in the state’s three heaviest Catholic counties (Elk, Lackawanna, and Luzerne), where he polled 43.3 per cent, although he ran far behind Jackson in Philadelphia’s Catholic and Jewish neighborhoods.

Some observers insist that the evangelicals handed Carter his Pennsylvania victory. Voters in fifty key precincts were asked by the Washington Post whether Carter’s religious views affected their decision in the April 27 primary. Only 35 per cent said they were unaware of his religious background, and 51 per cent said they were aware of it but were not influenced in their voting by it. However, 13 per cent indicated they were influenced by his religion, 9 per cent to vote for him, 4 per cent to vote against him. With this net gain of 5 per cent superimposed upon the 1.3 million voters represented in the survey, it means that Carter got 70,000 votes mainly on the basis of his religious faith. In any close election such a factor could be significant.

(A Time-Yankelovich poll conducted nationwide shortly after the Pennsylvania primary found that 32 per cent of the voters considered Carter’s religion an asset, and only 8 per cent felt it is a liability.)

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The Maryland primary again revealed Carter’s strength in areas of the state where there are concentrations of theologically conservative Protestants. Although he was defeated statewide by California governor Jerry Brown (an ex-Jesuit seminarian who attracted many Catholic votes), Carter beat Brown 61 to 39 per cent in the eight heavily Methodist counties in Maryland’s Eastern Shore area. These counties, in addition to several in rural Delaware, West Virginia, and Kansas, are the strongest Methodist counties in the United States. Pre-election polls in many Eastern Shore towns indicated that many voters supported Carter because of his religious views.

Religious identification was a visible part of the Maryland campaign. One of Carter’s aunts, Emily Dolvin of Roswell, Georgia, appealed for Baptists to “get out there on Tuesday and vote.” Said she: “If all you Baptists vote for him he’ll get in, because there are more Baptists than anyone.” In predominantly Catholic Prince George’s County, where the Democratic organization endorsed Brown, one official told reporters, “It feels good to be able to vote for a Catholic again.”

A Washington Post survey showed that Maryland’s Catholic voters favored Brown over Carter by 56 to 34 per cent, and that Jewish voters went overwhelmingly for Brown over Carter 75 to 7 per cent.

In the Michigan primary, which Carter barely won, a New York Times survey showed Protestants voting 50 to 37 per cent for Carter, while Catholics voted 45 to 41 per cent for Morris Udall, an ex-Mormon. Carter’s decisive victories in North Carolina, Illinois, and Indiana indicate a special drawing power among many evangelical Protestant voters. He did poorly in Oregon, New York, and Rhode Island, where there are comparatively few such voters.

Carter is doing well among blacks, millions of whom are Baptists. The majority of other church-going blacks identify with evangelical faith. On top of this, Carter’s record on race relations comes across as a plus in the black community.

Also significant are the recent polls that show a commanding lead for Carter over Ford or Reagan in the South. That traditional Democratic stronghold was the least Democratic area of the country in the last three presidential elections.

This correspondent’s research, based on a county and precinct study of election returns, correlated with church membership and voting on sensitive religious-oriented referendum questions, suggests that evangelicals have favored the Republican presidential nominees for at least a generation or more.

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It seems likely that Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern received only 15 to 20 per cent of the evangelical vote in the last two elections. If so, it means that about three million evangelicals voted for McGovern in 1972 compared to 13 million for Nixon, a 10 million majority. If Carter were to split this majority evenly with President Ford or Ronald Reagan, the net swing of five million votes—coupled with the normal Democratic majorities among Catholics, Jews (they are not likely to vote Republican), liberal and moderate Protestants, and the religiously non-affiliated—could give Carter a historic landslide victory. And if he were to win the majority of the evangelical vote, it would give him an enormous mandate.

Such a conclusion assumes, of course, that the Democratic Party would be relatively united behind Carter, and that the evangelicals would have no reason to doubt Carter’s integrity and capability at the time of the election.

There are some variables. Both Ford and Reagan are also professed believers of evangelical orientation. Neither makes a public issue of faith, however, so it is unclear how widely their spiritual identity is known. If Reagan wins the Republican nomination, he will siphon off conservative votes in the evangelical community that would otherwise go to Carter. Even so, the largest chunk of the evangelical vote should remain intact for Carter.

A substantial religious vote—for and against Carter—seems to be building up. Historian Lawrence H. Fuchs defines two conditions which may produce a religious vote: “when members of any religious group perceive their safety, status, or pride as a group to be involved in the fortunes of a political party or candidate; and whenever co-religionists perceive their religious values as being tied to the success or failure of a party or candidate.”

There is a growing resentment among Southern Baptists over the way Carter is being treated by some of the secular media. Editor R. G. Puckett of the Maryland Baptist recently charged that there is an “apparent smear campaign against Jimmy Carter … because he is a Southern Baptist.” Another Baptist editor claimed that the “liberal press” had adopted a double standard by urging the country in 1960 to refrain from making John Kennedy’s religion a campaign issue but doing just the opposite themselves with Carter’s faith.

Such attacks, whether real or imagined, can only help Carter come November, according to historian Fuchs’s logic. But with or without them, and barring any major changes, it looks like Carter should win the Presidency with ease.

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