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Republicans & the Targeting of Religious Voters

An increasingly obvious feature of American politics over the past quarter-century has been the prominent and polarizing role played by religion. The strategic importance of evangelicals and of religious people in general has burgeoned to the point where a presidential campaign (namely, George W. Bush’s in 2004) scorned the conventional wisdom of courting undecided, middle-of-the-road voters and triumphed instead by turning out its church-going base.

Church attendance now more closely predicts liberal-conservative voting patterns than wealth or class. Party platforms and election strategies shape themselves to a red-state/blue-state divide, with the Republican Party winning by a margin of passionately religious-minded voters who cite moral concerns as their chief reason for voting. Why has this happened? And why didn’t it happen a generation or two ago?

In a recent social-science research project, Harvard economists Edward L. Glaeser, Giacomo A. M. Ponzetto, and Jesse M. Shapiro applied economic theory and statistical analysis to political decision making in the United States and other democracies around the world. Their goal was to explain politicians’ use of “strategic extremism,” the choice of an extreme political stance designed to attract more voter support. (The word “extreme” here bears no pejorative meaning; it simply describes a policy option at one end of the spectrum of ongoing...

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About the Author

Daniel K. Finn teaches economics and theology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. His most recent book is Distant Markets, Distant Harms: Economic Complicity and Christian Ethics (Oxford, 2014).