LOS ANGELES, Nov. 19 (UPI) -- Newly available exit poll data show that the Republican Party's improved performance in the 2002 elections for the House of Representatives was closely tied to a surge in the GOP's popularity among white Protestants.
Among whites who told pollsters they were Protestants or non-Catholic Christians, 69 percent voted for Republican candidates for the House, up from 63 percent in the deadlocked 2000 election. In contrast, the second-largest religious bloc, white Roman Catholics, soured slightly on Republicans, with their GOP fraction going from 52 percent to 50 percent. Democrats won easily among the "Jewish," "all other" and "no religion" categories.
When the Voter News Service computer system for tabulating the lone national exit poll malfunctioned on Election Day 2002, crucial data for understanding that historic event disappeared. However, a great majority of the surveys were collected and turned over to the Roper Center for Opinion Research for evaluation. Roper recently determined the 17,872 interviews (with 8,350 of them asking about religious affiliation) were as trustworthy as previous VNS exit polls. An exclusive United Press International study of the raw data has been reviewing some of the new insights available.
Although race remains the most powerful influence on voting -- black Protestants, for example, cast 12 percent of their vote for the Republicans, less than one-fifth the white Protestant Republican vote percentage -- within each racial group, religion correlates strongly with partisanship.
Among Hispanics, for example, one-third of polled Catholics voted Republican. Among the one out of four Hispanic voters who were Protestant, however, the GOP won a small majority.
From a denominational perspective, the biggest single prize in the 2002 election was the white Protestant bloc, which accounted for 44 percent of all voters.
Although the GOP did best among Southern white Protestants, winning 75 percent of their vote, the Republicans also earned at least 63 percent of white Protestant ballots in the East, Midwest and West.
Among white Protestants, 35 percent said they belonged to the "religious right," but so did one-third of non-white voters, one-eighth of white Catholics and one-tenth of whites who described their religion as "other." So it remains unclear whether the pollsters and the public were fully on the same wavelength over what exactly is the "religious right."
In any case, white Protestants who specifically said they didn't belong to the religious right still cast 62 percent of their votes for GOP office seekers.
No "gender gap" existed among white Protestants, but white Catholic women voted 46 percent Republican compared to 55 percent among white Catholic men.
Income had a larger influence on white Catholics than white Protestants or Jews, with Republican voting rising sharply with Catholics' income. Among those white Catholics making more than $100,000 a year, 71 percent voted GOP.
The GOP's share of Jewish ballots was up from 22 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2002. This rise brought Republican candidates to the level of popularity they enjoyed among Jews in 1984 through 1988. Still, since Jews made up 3.3 percent of all voters in 2002, this 7-point gain was barely noticeable in the overall totals.
The future may look a little brighter for the GOP among Jews, since they won 36 percent of Jews under age 45.
Among both white Protestants and Jews, those who frequently attend religious services voted more Republican than those who seldom worship, but no such pattern was apparent among white Catholics, blacks or Hispanics.
There's been interest in the growing importance of the Muslim vote. For example, GOP insider Grover Norquist began working in 1997 with President Bush's adviser Karl Rove to attract Muslims to the Republican Party. However, the VNS poll found virtually no voters willing to identify themselves as Muslims. They totaled 0.2 percent of all respondents.
This tiny number may have been a fluke due to inadequate sample size, although the VNS exit poll dwarfed most telephone opinion polls. Or, some Muslims voters might have covered up their religion for fear of harassment. It's also possible that there aren't yet as many Muslim voters as has been widely assumed.
In 2002, 8 percent of voters said they had no religion, down from 9 percent in 2000. Sharp gender gaps were seen among the nonreligious, with men outnumbering women about 5 to 3. Women with no religion were particularly liberal, casting only 18 percent of their votes for the GOP, but the men were more centrist, with 44 percent voting Republican.