Is it the waning influence of the white Protestant vote, or the waxing influence of minorities?
A new chart by David North at the Center for Immigration Studies shows the decline of white Protestant candidates in presidential races, falling from all four candidates in a presidential race being described as white and Protestant two decades ago, to zero candidates that can be described that way today.
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The chart begins with the 1992 presidential race, in which the candidates for top jobs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George H.W. Bush, and Dan Quayle—all white Protestants. The 1996 race also had four white Protestant candidates, while the 2000 and 2004 races had only three white Protestants, and the 2008 race had just two.
In this year's election, zero of the top two jobs will be held by white Protestant males, no matter which party wins the presidency. (President Barack Obama is black, Vice President Joe Biden is Catholic, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is Mormon, and his running mate Paul Ryan is Catholic.)
"Through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Protestant Establishment sat atop the American power structure," wrote the New York Times' David Brooks of the history of America's powerful white Protestant elite in July. "A relatively small network of white Protestant men dominated the universities, the world of finance, the local country clubs and even high government service."
But something has changed, he notes. "Over the past half–century, a more diverse... elite has replaced the Protestant Establishment."
It isn't just in the White House. According to research from the Pew Forum On Religion and Public Life, the percentage of Protestants in Congress fell from 74 percent in 1961 to 55 percent today.
To what can we attribute the decline of America's white Protestant establishment?
The Wall Street Journal's Robert Frank attributed it to "many things," including "the deregulation of markets, globalization, the rise of technology, the primacy of education and skills over family connections ... [and] the shifting dynamics of the faith itself."
Evangelical leader Ralph Reed sees that last reason as the key. He told Whispers the decline of Protestants in the White House shows how far Catholics and Protestants, once adversaries in presidential races, have come in embracing one another's faiths—as well as in embracing other Christian faiths.
"You really have to appreciate the religious history of America to see what a big moment it is to have ... evangelicals turning out in the largest numbers in history to vote for our ticket and not have a Protestant on it," he said.
Some say Republicans have reacted badly to the loss of the reliable white Protestant vote.
Allan J. Lichtman, professor of history at American University, says Republicans have responded by instituting a number of stringent voter identification laws designed to suppress the minority vote.
"If the GOP can't grow its own voter base, it can at least hope to shrink the Democrats' base," he wrote in the Daily Beast last month. Voter ID laws now exist in more than two dozen states, and they are estimated to block what could be thousands of Americans from voting this fall.
The Republican National Convention speaker line up suggests a second strategy to deal with the decline: Demonstrate inclusiveness to minorities.
Republican convention speakers included Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, son of a Cuban immigrant bartender and maid, Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz, son of a Cuban immigrant, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, daughter of Sikh immigrants, and Utah Mayor Mia Love, who is black, conservative and Mormon.