After Democrats voted in the Alabama primary in early March, researchers for CNN and other newsrooms asked them several questions.
Reactions to the candidates were sorted by gender, race, LGBTQ identity, age, education level, political ideology and other factors. However, researchers didn’t ask about religious faith and how often voters attended worship services. They didn’t probe differences between evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants and “nones” -- Americans who claim zero ties to organized religious groups.
”We don’t know the answers to these kinds of questions because they are rarely being asked,” said Michael Wear of Public Square Strategies. He is best known for his work as faith-outreach director for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and as part of the president’s White House staff.
”This isn’t just about exit polls. It’s hard for Democrats to do their planning, and to allocate resources during campaigns, without this kind of data. ... We need cross-tabs in these polls so that we can compare differences between white evangelicals and black evangelicals, between Catholics who go to Mass all the time and those who don’t, and other groups as well.”
Exit pollers researchers did ask about religion in South Carolina, the pivotal state in former Vice President Joe Biden’s stunning surge. It was significant that Biden was backed by 56% of Democrats who attend religious services “once a week or more,” while 15% of those same voters backed Sen. Bernie Sanders. Among those who “never” attend services, Sanders was the clear winner.
Similar religion gaps emerged in North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee. In news coverage, these trends were linked to Biden’s support from African Americans, including churchgoers -- a huge voter bloc among Democrats.
That’s important information, said Wear. But it would have helped to know how Catholics in South Carolina voted, as well as more about evangelical Protestants -- black and white. It would have helped to know what issues mattered most to active members of various religious groups and how faith affected their choices.
It’s possible that pollsters and journalists do not ask these questions, he said, because key “players in the Democratic Party leadership aren’t asking the big questions about religion, either.”
Part of the problem is that many Americans have decided that the “religious” now means “Republican,” according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted after the Iowa caucuses. Any quick survey of activist Democrats in social media -- the Twitterverse, in particular -- would support the same conclusion.
For example, 60% of participants in the Pew survey said that Sanders -- who has cited the influence of Jewish culture in his life -- was “not too” or “not at all” religious. Only 30% said he is “somewhat” religious.
Meanwhile, Biden was considered “somewhat” religious by 55% and “very” religious by only 9%. Biden has consistently made Catholicism a prominent part of his public image, while taking political stands that clash with church doctrines on abortion and other sexuality issues. Pew researchers noted that a large majority of Democrats (70%) see the former vice president as at least “somewhat religious,” compared with the 37% of Republicans who think that.
Meanwhile, Pew found that the number of Democrats, and voters who lean that way, who “identify as Christian” fell 17% in the past decade -- from 72% to 55%. At the same time, the share of “nones” rose from 20% to 34%.
The Democratic National Committee saluted that shift last summer with a resolution hailing the “religiously unaffiliated demographic” as the “largest religious group” in their party. This is crucial, the DNC said, in an era when others are using “misplaced claims of ‘religious liberty’ to justify public policy that has threatened the civil rights and liberties of many Americans,” including women and LGBTQ citizens.
But while pundits and politicos focus on the power of “nones” among Democrats, and white evangelicals inside the GOP, Wear said veteran researchers who focus on swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida are -- once again -- seeking information about another large flock of religious believers.
”Catholics are the make-or-break demographic in this next election,” he stressed. “That was obvious across the Midwest in the last (presidential) campaign. There is no reason not to be asking questions about what Catholic voters are thinking at this point in the game.”
(Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)