The causes of political partisanship

In Harvard Magazine, a review of the current research on the factors that shape political partisanship and preferences.

Of all the demographic factors in play, religion appears to have made the biggest difference in recent decades. That wasn’t always the case. “In 1954, if you were a regular churchgoer, holding everything else constant, you were equally likely to be Democrat or Republican,” says David King of the Kennedy School. “Now, if you’re a regular churchgoer, you’re overwhelmingly more likely to be a Republican.” A paper coauthored by KSG lecturer Elaine Kamarck, which analyzed statistics from the University of Michigan’s American National Election Survey, shows just how wide the gap between religious and secular voters now yawns. In 1988, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis “fared only two points worse among regular churchgoers than among those who attended church infrequently or not at all,” a difference typical of presidential elections since 1952, the paper states. But since the presidential election of 1992, the difference between these two groups widened dramatically, to nearly 12 points on average.

Ronald Thiemann, professor of theology at the Divinity School, says people of faith may be drawn to conservative politics because Republicans have been better at articulating religious issues. That wasn’t the case during the 1960s, he says, when liberal Jews and Christians stood united for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Yet in the 1980s, when Republicans—and particularly the religious right—mobilized around the issue of abortion, religious liberals lost their voice. “I don’t think that people on the more [religiously] liberal side quite knew how to think about these new emerging realities,” Thiemann says. As the Bible Belt evolved into a Republican stronghold after the 1960s, the Republican Party came to be seen as the party of religious voters, especially evangelical Protestants.