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Joe Biden’s Problem Is in the Pews

May 19, 2024

To locate Joe Biden’s electoral problem, you need only to look on Sunday morning. Polling shows the mass-attending Catholic president trails Donald Trump by 10 points among those who attend religious services a few times a year or more. The score is reversed with voters who report they seldom or never attend church, with Biden leading by 10.

It’s the starkest divide in the electorate – and one that political journalists rarely mention, perhaps because, as a profession, journalists are more removed from religion than the average American.

Trump’s advantage with white evangelical Protestants is widely understood, but he also leads Biden by healthy margins among less politically conservative Christians. These findings in the recent Marquette Law School’s national poll of registered voters showed Biden trailing Trump by 18 percentage points with other members of his own Catholic faith, and behind Trump by 16 among adherents of mainline protestant denominations, which would include groups like Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians.

Those numbers are in the same range as the 24-point lead Trump posts among self-described “born-again” evangelicals. The same poll shows the race is reversed with non-Christian voters, with whom Biden holds a commanding 33-point advantage.

The irony of this schism proves a dynamic that is larger than these two men. Biden would tell you his Catholicism is integral to his own self-identity. Trump, meanwhile, was a high-living playboy who said he’d never asked God for forgiveness for anything, situating himself well outside the theology and lifestyle of most Christians.

In 2018, we wrote a book examining the realignment that brought Trump to power and identified what we called “King Cyrus Christians” as an important archetype in Trump’s coalition. These voters, mostly Catholic or evangelical Protestants, adopted Trump’s candidacy pragmatically, seeing in him a warrior who would battle their common political enemies. And with control of the Supreme Court in the balance in that 2016 election, they forged an alliance of necessity.

Survey research conducted for our book found these King Cyrus Christians (so named in a nod to the pagan Persian king who had delivered ancient Jews back to Israel and rebuilt their temple in Jerusalem) were not initially Trump’s most enthusiastic backers. Instead, the shock troops of first-wave Trumpism were the most secular and least traditional Republicans – and many were not Republican at all.

But over time, religious Republicans have gotten more comfortable with Trump, owing to his kept promise to deliver a conservative Supreme Court that not only reversed decades of erosion in religious liberty but also overturned the Roe v. Wade abortion precedent. Politics is about coalitions, and the arrangement between Trump and conservative Christians indisputably has delivered benefits for both sides.

Trump’s 2016 nomination was powered by secular Republicans, but his 2024 re-nomination showed no such schism. If anything, it was the reverse. Polling in the two GOP contests most dominated by religious voters, the Iowa Caucus and the South Carolina primary, showed him doing modestly better among evangelical than non-evangelical Republicans.

The religious divide that matters going forward in American politics is not about Trump, and it’s not about white evangelical Protestants. The question is whether Democrats can keep a place in their party for other religiously devout voters.

Democrats’ best electoral group – the so-called “nones,” those with no religious affiliation – is growing, particularly among younger generations. But as the party becomes dominated by those who actively reject religion, its platform becomes less appealing to those who don’t, as many Jewish Democrats are discovering as left-wing radicals show an ugly antisemitic side and opposition to America’s alliance with the Jewish state of Israel.

While “nones” are rising overall, they aren’t distributed proportionately around the country, clustering disproportionately on the coasts. If Democrats drive out the religious voters in their ranks, they will struggle to compete in a geographic footprint large enough to enable them to control Congress or win in the electoral college.

Hispanic voters, another growing slice of the electorate, are moving quickly away from Democrats. Florida offers the perfect case study for that drift, as voters of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Columbian descent have helped transform what was recently America’s quintessential swing state into a Republican fortress. Nervous Democratic strategists are on guard for the same dynamic playing out next in Nevada and Arizona.

Pew Research data shows Hispanics are about half as likely as whites to say they do not believe in God, while African Americans, long the bulwark of the Democratic Party, are five times less likely than whites to express disbelief. Blacks also attend church more than whites do, report reading the Bible more than whites, and say they pray more than whites, according to respected church researchers at Barna Group.

While Democrats can still count on topping 90% with blacks in most elections, the three trends driving realignment – religiosity, education density, and the blue-collar/white-collar divide – will put that loyalty to the test in coming years, and maybe sooner than pundits expect.

A Democratic Party platform that is growing ever more hostile to traditional religious mores on social policy, on Israel, and on issues surrounding religious liberty may find it difficult to keep enough blacks, Hispanics, and Jews on board to win enough states to govern.

Political realignment works like the tectonic plates in the earth’s crust. The masses of land, or of voters, tend to keep moving, even if that movement is only noticed when it results in an earthquake. Smart political geologists will be watching how believers vote in this election. 

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

Salena Zito is a reporter for the Washington Examiner, Wall Street Journal contributor, and co-author of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics.”

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