Pennsylvania Church-Goers Turn Their Backs on Obama

Terence P. Jeffrey | Editor in Chief | Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pennsylvania Church-Goers Turn Their Backs on Obama

( - Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) soundly defeated Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) among church-going voters in Tuesday's Pennsylvania presidential primary, exposing a potential weakness in the Democratic frontrunner among northern church-going voters, particularly Catholics, who have been a key swing vote in recent presidential elections.

Clinton beat Obama in Pennsylvania among all voters who said they attend church, even if they do so only a few times a year, according to the exit poll conducted for the major television networks. Obama, by contrast, beat Clinton among voters who said they never go to church. (See Pennsylvania exit poll)

This represents a complete reversal of the northern church-going vote since the February 19 Democratic primary in Wisconsin, where Obama overwhelmed Clinton, 58% to 41%.

In Wisconsin, where Sen. John Kerry narrowly beat President George Bush in 2004, Obama decisively defeated Clinton among each segment of the church-going vote (measured by how frequently they attend services).

He defeated her 56% to 44% among voters who attend church more than once a week, 55% to 44% among those who attend weekly, 60% to 39% among those who attend monthly, and 60% to 40% among those who attend a few times a year. (See Wisconsin exit poll)

In Wisconsin, the only religious group measured by the exit poll that sided with Clinton over Obama was Catholics who attend Mass weekly, who supported her over him, 53% to 46%.

But in Pennsylvania's Democratic primary on Tuesday, the pattern was reversed. Clinton beat Obama among all segments of the church-going population, according to the exit poll. She beat him 51% to 49% among those who said they attend church more than once a week, 61% to 39% among those who attend church weekly, 54% to 46% among those who attend church monthly, and 55% to 45% among those who attend church only a few times a year.

He beat her, by contrast, 54% to 44%, among Pennsylvania Democratic primary voters who never attend church.

Between Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Clinton massively increased her advantage over Obama among church-going Catholic Democratic primary voters, beating him 74% to 26% among those who say they go to Mass every week. This was despite the fact that Obama campaigned across Pennsylvania with arguably the state's most prominent Catholic politician, Sen. Bob Casey, Jr., who had emphatically endorsed him.

At a private fundraiser in San Francisco on April 6, Obama tried to explain his difficulty in appealing to voters in economically depressed small towns in Pennsylvania by saying: "It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Hillary Clinton, who opposed the federal marriage amendment and voted against the ban on partial-birth abortion, attacked Obama's San Francisco remarks as "demeaning" and sometimes sounded like a cultural conservative in the final days of her Pennsylvania campaign.

"The people of faith I know don't 'cling' to religion because they're bitter," she said. "People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich."

Even before his remarks in San Francisco, Obama had started to show weakness in appealing to northern Catholic voters, although he had done better with other church-going voters.

In the Ohio primary held on March 4, for example, Clinton beat Obama, 62% to 35%, among Catholic voters who attend Mass weekly, and 64% to 35% among Catholics who attend Mass less often.

Among all Ohio voters who attend church more than once a week, however, Obama had tied Clinton at 48%. She beat him 52% to 46%, among Ohio voters who attended church once a week, while he tied her, 50% to 50%, among Ohio voters who attend church once a month. (See Ohio exit poll)

In Mississippi's March 11 primary, Obama had defeated Clinton among all church-goers, winning 58% of those who go to church once a month, 64% of those who go weekly, 67% of those who go monthly, and 53% of those who go a few times a year. (See Mississippi exit poll)

The Catholic vote in Mississippi was too small to be measured by the exit poll.

Nationally, in 2004, President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry 52% to 47% among Catholic voters, 64% to 35% among voters who attend church more than once a week, 58% to 41% among voters who attend church weekly, and 50% to 49% among voters who attended church monthly. (See 2004 national exit poll)

Kerry defeated Bush, 62% to 36%, among voters who said they never attended church, but those voters equaled only 15% of the national electorate.

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