ATLANTA – Republican Donald Trump has told conservative evangelical pastors in Florida that his presidency would preserve “religious liberty” and reverse what he insists is a government-enforced muzzling of Christians.
The same afternoon, Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine praised a more liberal group of black church leaders in Louisiana for their “progressive values that are the values of Scripture,” and he urged them to see Hillary Clinton as a kindred spirit.
The competing appearances earlier this month highlight an oft-overlooked political reality: The “religious vote” is vast and complex, and it extends beyond generalizations about “social conservatives” who side with Republicans and black Protestant churches whose pastors and parishioners opt nearly unanimously for Democrats.
An overview of how the dynamics among religious voters could help determine the 45th president.
HOW RELIGIOUS ARE AMERICAN VOTERS?
There’s a reason politicians chase steeples. Exit polls from recent elections suggest religiously affiliated Americans and those who attend services regularly are more likely to vote than those who claim no organized faith identity.
In 2012 exit polls, almost nine out of 10 voters claimed some religious affiliation and eight out of 10 voters identified as Christian. That’s a higher proportion than what surveys typically find in the general population: A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that three out of four people claim a religious affiliation, while seven out of 10 Americans are Christian.
Still, there’s no absolute count of who believes what, since the government’s census doesn’t ask.
MOST CHRISTIANS ARE REPUBLICANS, RIGHT?
White Christians do skew toward Republicans. President Barack Obama won about 40 percent of white Catholics, according to 2012 exit polls. He won less than a third of white non-Catholic Christians. A slice of that group, white evangelical or “born-again” Christians, are even more conservative, with a strong opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage, along with strong support for Israel. Obama won just a fifth of them.
Yet those groups are just a subset of religious voters, and the Democratic nominee still gets some of that vote. White non-Catholic Christians cast about 40 percent of the 2012 ballots, with white Catholics responsible for less than a fifth. The “born-again” white evangelical vote accounted for just a quarter of the overall electorate — same as the total Catholic vote that includes millions of Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans.
Black and Hispanic voters, meanwhile, also form key pieces of the religious vote, and they lean heavily in Democrats’ favor.
TRUMP AND WHITE EVANGELICALS
In Florida, Trump told pastors he’s not their “perfect” candidate.
He’s drawn fire for his boasts about sexual exploits and his caustic rhetoric about immigrants.
But he’s tapped Mike Pence as his running mate, touting the Indiana governor’s staunch anti-abortion, anti-gay rights record that appeals to many white religious conservatives.
Trump compares himself to Ronald Reagan, another divorced candidate initially questioned and then embraced by conservative religious leaders. Reagan “knew how to win,” Trump reminded the pastors in Florida. Arguing that too many evangelicals stayed home for Obama’s victories, Trump says he’s the movement’s best chance for conservative federal court appointments and relaxing the ban on tax-exempt churches participating in blatant political activity.
Yet Trump also risks his own oversimplifications. He urged the Florida assembly to “get your people out to vote,” pointing specifically at Utah, a GOP-stronghold where he is underperforming. Utah is, in fact, heavily Mormon.
CLINTON, THE METHODIST
Just as Trump is aiming for traditionally Republican religious sectors, Clinton’s is focusing most heavily on a Democratic trove: the black church. The group Kaine addressed in New Orleans was the Progressive National Baptist Convention, an outgrowth of the civil rights movement. Clinton’s staff includes a “national African-American faith outreach director.”
Still, Clinton bets that Trump’s atypical GOP profile gives her some opening. She touts her Methodist faith, and some of her arguments about Trump’s temperament and his treatment of others are aimed broadly at moderate and even Republican voters who prioritize their faith.
IS THERE A BELLWETHER?
The winner among Catholics has also won the national popular vote in every presidential election since 1972. But it’s really more a function of math: Catholics cast about a quarter of presidential ballots, and the group is ideologically, ethnically, racially and geographically diverse. So it’s basically a massive sample size of the complete electorate. For example, Mitt Romney won six out of 10 white Catholics in 2012, about the same proportion he claimed among all whites; Obama dominated among non-white Catholics, just as he did among other non-whites. Together, Obama won a narrow majority of the Catholic vote, not much different than his national popular vote share.
WHERE IT MATTERS MOST?
Each party’s religious anchors — black Protestants for Democrats, white evangelicals for Republicans — figure prominently in Southern battlegrounds of Florida, North Carolina and Virginia (and Georgia, assuming that traditionally GOP state stays competitive). They also are important in Ohio, though the Midwestern band of states that Trump will depend on for any chance of victory generally is whiter and more Catholic than the Southern battlegrounds.
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