Will “Nones” Elect the Next President?

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We’ve heard for years about the Religious Right and its growing power in politics, including help carrying George W. Bush into the presidency.

But there’s another power force that’s come into play in politics. The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life states that one in five American adults affiliate with no religion, and refers to this group as “nones.” The October report, entitled “Nones” on the Rise, emphasizes that the number of “nones” are growing. According to the report’s executive summary:

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In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

Politically in 2008, according to the Pew report, voters with no religious affiliation actually countered the Religious Right’s vote for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. And the “nones” are migrating even more to the voting booth in 2012. The report states:

With their rising numbers, the religiously unaffiliated are an increasingly important segment of the electorate. In the 2008 presidential election, they voted as heavily for Barack Obama as white evangelical Protestants did for John McCain. More than six-in-ten religiously unaffiliated registered voters are Democrats (39%) or lean toward the Democratic Party (24%). They are about twice as likely to describe themselves as political liberals than as conservatives, and solid majorities support legal abortion (72%) and same-sex marriage (73%). In the last five years, the unaffiliated have risen from 17% to 24% of all registered voters who are Democrats or lean Democratic.

The report itself notes that Obama captured three-quarters of the “nones” votes in 2008. It sees that trend basically continuing in polling “nones” for this year’s election:

The 2012 presidential race is following the same pattern to date. As of mid-September, roughly two-thirds of the unaffiliated say they would vote for Obama (65%) over Republican candidate Mitt Romney (27%) if the election was held today. Obama’s advantage among the religiously unaffiliated has been largely steady throughout 2012.

The report also documents that, “In contrast with the unaffiliated, voters who are affiliated with a religious group are more likely to identify with or lean toward the Republicans (48%) than the Democrats (45%).”

The percentages are based on 13,429 registered voters interviewed in surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press from January to July 2012. Of that number, 2,139 were unaffiliated with a religion.

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When it comes to presidential candidates integrating religion into their political rhetoric, the report notes:

The unaffiliated also tend to be less comfortable than others in the general public when political leaders talk about religion. About half of the unaffiliated (54%) are uncomfortable when politicians talk about their religious commitment. Among those with a religious affiliation, 41% say the same. Atheists and agnostics are particularly likely to say such talk makes them uncomfortable (67%). Similarly, half of the unaffiliated say they are uncomfortable when political leaders discuss their faith and beliefs. By comparison, fewer in the general public (38%) are uncomfortable with this.

Romney in his political speeches has consistently referred to wanting America to be the “shining city on a hill,” a gold-nugget phrase to court the Religious Right. Interestingly, John F. Kennedy actually flashed the phrase first for presidential purposes, using it on Jan. 9, 1961 when he was president-elect. But Republicans have branded it into the political consciousness as the inspiration of Ronald Reagan, and all Republican presidential candidates since then have leaned on it. The phrase was actually introduced to America in a 1630 sermon by Puritan John Winthrop.

Obama has had his run-ins with the conservative religious over contraceptives and gay marriage, but the “nones” would appear to agree with his stances.

The question is where do the liberal “nones” stand on issues of human rights which neither Obama nor Romney seem to want to put at the forefront, but may have had to discuss in Monday night’s debate. Those include massive surveillance of Americans, the National Defense Authorization Act which would allow the military to arrest and hold without trial anyone in the world, including Americans, and CIA secret drone attacks whose victims have included hundreds of innocents including women and children.

Those issues weren’t included in the Pew surveys. Nor was the economy. But one would think those issues might weigh on the minds of “nones.”

Meanwhile, a Washington Post-ABC tracking poll was released Monday, before the Monday night presidential debate. That poll showed a tight race with Obama leading Romney 49-48 percent among likely voters.