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Commentary: Lessons from the 2010 election

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 13, 2010 - Now that a sufficient amount of time has passed since the midterm elections, the data on who voted, for whom they voted and why have been analyzed and interpreted. Among the questions, two, in particular, stand out: Was the election a referendum on President Barack Obama, and do the 2010 results mark a turning point or a continuation of historical trends?

A recent Brookings Institution report, based on a Pew exit survey of voters last month, suggests some answers to these questions. In addition, the focus of the survey was on voters' religious and cultural attitudes, which allows us to place this year's election within a broader context.

One of the report's findings was that the Great Recession pushed, at least temporarily, the culture wars from many voters' minds. Historians and political scientists note that economic downturns generally produce elections where voters concentrate on jobs and the economy rather than cultural issues. This was the case in 1932, when the Democratic Party, led by Franklin D. Roosevelt swept into power because of the Great Depression.

In that election, the electoral forces unleashed by unprecedented economic disaster brought about a historic realignment in American politics. Could a similar reordering occur as a result of the 2010 election?

The Brookings report suggests probably not. The broader historical trends reflecting voters' cultural values do not appear to have been significantly altered in 2010.

Thus, according to the report: "Overwhelmingly, voters cast their ballots on the basis of economic issues, while the religious alignments that took root well before the economic downturn remained intact." In other words, the Democrats continued to lose the votes of religious conservatives, but as a result of the economy, they also saw significant erosion of their support among religious liberals and secular voters from the 2008 election.

Other significant cleavages related to religion, however, have become increasingly apparent in American politics since Sept. 11, 2001. While these fracture points are too recent to be considered trends in the same way as religious conservatives voting Republican is, they still deserve our close attention over the next few years.

First, there are marked cleavages along ideology, race and age over the question of whether Islamic and American values are compatible. Conservative Republicans and older voters tend to take the view that Muslims do not share American values. A plurality of white voters (46 percent) compared to African-American voters (31 percent) also took this view. However, differences over Islam did not appear to play a direct role in the election, according to the report.

Second, on the question of whether or not Obama's religious views reflected their own, Americans were similarly split along racial and religious lines. The questioners used the more neutral wording, similar beliefs, rather than to ask a question rooted in a falsehood, that is, "Do you think President Obama is a Muslim?" Nevertheless, just 35 president of white Americans thought that the president's religious beliefs were like their own, while 74 percent of the African-American voters surveyed thought this.

Among Christian groups, Catholics are significantly more likely than Protestants to say that Obama's religious beliefs were similar to theirs. Less frequent church-goers were also more likely to say that they shared Obama's beliefs.

The report acknowledges that here the combination of religion and politics becomes particularly complicated. Those groups that are most opposed to the president on political grounds are the same ones who think his religious attitudes are different from theirs.

This points to a potential problem for Obama as he gears up for his re-election bid in 2012. As the American head of state, the president represents American values and principles. To win again, Obama will have to neutralize the perception that his religious values are significantly out of step with an important segment of the electorate.

Third, the survey also offers some tentative conclusions about the tea party movement's relation with the religious right. The right tends to agree on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, but tea party members have more conservative views on minority groups, social welfare and illegal immigration than religious conservatives. Tea party members, according to the Brookings report, appear to be driven more by economic issues and "assertive nationalism" than cultural and religious issues.

The overall picture that emerges from the report and survey is that Obama's election unsettled older, white Americans living in smaller cities, towns and rural areas more than was initially recognized. The coalition of religious conservatives and the tea party, while they might agree on some issues, appears primarily motivated by an intense animosity toward President Obama.

Robert A. Cropf chairs the Department of Public Policy Studies at Saint Louis University.