President Obama walks with his daughters Sasha, foreground, and Malia as they leave St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, on Oct. 28. An analysis of exit polls shows that those who claim no specific religious affiliation were a key Obama voting bloc in the presidential race. Jacquelyn Martin/AP
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But as we close the book on the election, it bears noting that another less obvious bloc of key swing state voters helped the president win a second term.
They're the "nones" -- that's the Pew Research Center's shorthand for the growing number of American voters who don't have a specific religious affiliation. Some are agnostic, some atheist, but more than half define themselves as either "religious" or "spiritual but not religious," Pew found in a recent survey.
They are typically younger, more socially liberal than their forebears, vote Democratic, and now make up nearly 20 percent of the country's population. Exit polls suggest that 12 percent of voters on Election Day were counted as "religiously unaffiliated."
"This really is a striking development in American politics," says Gregory Smith of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "There's no question that the religiously unaffiliated are a very important, politically consequential group."
The religiously unaffiliated voters are almost as strongly Democratic as white evangelicals are Republican, polls show.
Their overwhelming support of Obama proved crucial in a number of swing states where the president lost both the Catholic and Protestant vote by single and low-double digits, but won the "nones" by capturing 70-plus percent of their votes.
Big And Growing Formal Religion Gap
Election analysts have hashed over the gender gap and the marriage gap. They talked about Hispanic voters and gay voters. But it was the religiously unaffiliated voters, says Iowa-based pollster J Ann Selzer, who gave her one of the election season's big "aha" moments.
Selzer tells us that in her last Iowa poll before Election Day, data she had compiled for the Des Moines Register showed that Obama was losing to GOP nominee Mitt Romney among both Protestant and Catholic voters.
Those voters make up 88 percent of the state's electorate, yet her final numbers still had Obama leading Romney by 5 percentage points.
"I see this in the data, and give a shout out to Michelle," Selzer says, referring to her research assistant, Michelle Yeoman.
"How is this possible?" Selzer recalls saying. "I was pretty much awestruck."
What Selzer found was that though her polling showed Romney leading among Catholics by 14 points and among Protestants by 6 points, Obama was winning the "nones" by a 52-point margin.
It defied conventional wisdom, she says, but Election Day largely bore out her numbers (though Romney's advantage with Catholics in the states was actually only 5 points) and the dynamic was replicated in a slew of other swing states the president carried.
-- In Ohio, Obama lost the Protestant vote by 3 points and the Catholic vote by 11, but he won the "nones" -- 12 percent of the state's electorate -- by 47 points.
-- In Virginia, Obama lost Protestants by 9 points and Catholics by 10 points, but won 76 percent of the "nones," who were 10 percent of the electorate.
-- In Florida, Obama lost Protestants by 16 points and Catholics by 5 points, but captured 72 percent of the "nones." They were 15 percent of the electorate.
Similar results were seen in states including Michigan, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
Source: NPR | LIZ HALLORAN