Analysis: Role of Religion in Remaining Primaries

Religion has undoubtedly played a key role in this year's presidential race, with an ordained Baptist preacher, a Mormon adherent, and a falsely rumored Muslim fueling an already heated and unprecedented election. Although some of the religious characters have dropped out, religion will continue to be important in the race as large numbers of Christian voters could be the deciding factor in upcoming contests.

The Democratic candidates are both eyeing Pennsylvania, the biggest remaining prize with 158 delegates, on April 22. Pennsylvania has a large population of white Catholics and mainline Protestants, much like the state of Ohio in which Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) won last week, according to John Green, senior fellow in Religion and American Politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Green, who is one of the nation's foremost experts on religion and politics, noted that Clinton's good performance among Ohio's religious voters – she won about two-thirds of both white Catholics and white Protestants – may help her capture another win in Pennsylvania. Exit polls showed Clinton also won the white Catholic and white Protestant vote, about three-fifths, in Texas last week.

"There are also some other contests that offer a similar opportunity for the Clinton campaign: One is the Indiana primary on May 6," Green highlighted in an interview with Pew Forum posted Friday.

He added, "West Virginia (May 13) and Kentucky (May 20) have large numbers of white Protestants, especially evangelicals."

But Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) may have an edge in Mississippi (Mar. 11) and North Carolina (May 6) because of the states' large population of black Protestants.

In addition to black Christian support, the Democratic frontrunner is said to be gaining among white Catholics and Protestants, especially after the Super Tuesday Contests on Feb. 5. He performs particularly well among young and well-educated white Christians.

"If the contest goes to the end of the season, one of the key states may be Oregon (May 20)," Green predicts. "Oregon is known for having a very large number of unaffiliated voters, many of whom identify with the Democratic Party.

"It will be very interesting to see how the campaign might play out if two candidates who have been touting their religious credentials and mobilizing religious voters come to compete in a state with a large number of unaffiliated voters."

Unaffiliated voters, as defined by Pew Forum, include atheists, agnostics, and those who describe themselves as "nothing in particular."

On the Republican side, presumed GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) still needs to work on gaining the support of his party's religious voters. Although McCain won by a large margin both in Texas and Ohio last Tuesday, former Republican candidate Mike Huckabee beat him among white evangelical Protestants in both states. However, McCain was not too far behind with nearly half of the evangelical vote.

But if Huckabee campaigns for McCain "it could really help McCain in the fall campaign," Green predicted.

"If nothing else, Huckabee has established himself as one of the most prominent evangelical political leaders in the country," the Pew senior fellow on religion and politics said.

"There has been criticism that he continued the campaign after it became clear that McCain was likely to win, but in doing so, he got to meet with a lot of evangelicals around the country," Green explained. "He got a lot of votes from evangelicals in various states, even states where he lost. This may serve Huckabee very well with the future plans he may have."

In regards to the general election, Green predicts that Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants could play a pivotal role given that these groups have had significant impact on both the Democratic and Republican primaries and caucuses.

"What that (large numbers of Roman Catholics and mainline protestant voting in both parties) reveals to me is the kinds of divisions that exist within those religious communities. It may be likely that many white Roman Catholics vote Democratic in the fall and others vote Republican," Green offered.

"And, of course, some will be in the middle and possibly could be persuaded one way or another. So it is interesting that two of the largest religious traditions in the United States, white Catholics and mainline Protestants, may turn out to be among the key swing voters in the fall campaign."

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