Former Vice President Joe Biden appeared to be a favorite among both Protestants and Catholics, according to a Pew Research Center survey published Friday. Among Democratic or Democratic-leaning registered voters, 29% of Protestants and 38% of Catholics identified Biden as their first choice for the Democratic nomination. Biden’s strongest support came from his fellow white Catholics, 45% of whom said he was their first choice.
However, the candidate received much less support from religiously unaffiliated Democrats (18%). Religiously unaffiliated Americans ― who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” ― are a quickly growing part of the Democratic Party.
Twenty-three percent of Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters named Warren as their first choice, while only 8% of Protestants and 11% of Catholics said the same.
Sixteen percent of Democratic voters named Sanders as their first choice. Only 8% of Protestants and 6% of Catholics agreed.
Voters’ ages could be a crucial explanation for why Warren and Sanders don’t seem to be doing as well among religious voters, according to Michele Margolis, author of “From Politics to the Pews.”
Younger Americans are much more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than their older counterparts. Younger Democrats tend to be supportive of single-payer health care programs and are concerned about student debt ― issues both Warren and Sanders have prioritized. On the other hand, older Democrats are more comfortable with Biden’s image as an establishment candidate.
“Taking these two pieces of information together, there are far more religious non-identifiers among young Democrats than among older Democrats, which leads to a big religion gap in candidate preference,” Margolis told HuffPost.
The Pew Research Center’s survey of 1,757 Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters was conducted between July 22 and Aug. 4. The second Democratic primary debate occurred during this period.
Unlike most polls that give people a set of candidates to choose from, Pew’s survey was open-ended, possibly boosting the number of people who said they were undecided. In fact, most Protestants (36%), including 46% of Black Protestants, said they didn’t know who their top pick was for the Democratic nomination or refused to answer the question.
With months to go before the Iowa caucuses ― and at least four primary debates left on the schedule ― there’s a chance Democratic voters’ opinions about the candidates (and the field itself) could change drastically before they head to the ballot box.
In the long run, Margolis suggested that it would be a mistake for the Democratic Party to ignore its many members who are religious ― pointing out that even folks who identify as religiously unaffiliated tend to hold some traditional religious beliefs, such as believing in a higher power. In fact, 86% of Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters believe in the God described in the Bible or in another kind of higher power or spiritual force, according to a 2018 Pew survey.
“Yes, most secular Americans are Democrats and [they] represent an important constituency, but many are still members of a religious faith,” Margolis said. “To ignore these voters may come at a cost in the general election.”
Over the past few months, the Democratic Party has made more of a concerted effort to reach out to faith groups. The party hired a religious outreach director earlier this year. Some Democratic candidates have hired faith outreach directors to help with their own campaigns.
David Campbell, co-author of “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” suggested that no Democratic candidate can rely solely on secular supporters to win their party’s nomination or a general election.
“The secret sauce in 2020 will be to win over the newly emerging secular vote while holding on to those religious voters (many of whom are African American and Latino) who are the longstanding foundation of the Democratic Party,” Campbell told HuffPost. “That is not an easy needle to thread.”