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Opinion Why exit pollsters desperately need to get religion

A voter completes her ballot on November 6, 2012 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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With the presidential votes rolling in, it is time for an altar call moment for exit pollsters: there are more religion angles than just conservative white evangelicals.

As a Baptist minister with a doctorate in political communication and a book on religious rhetoric in presidential campaigns, I find the treatment of religion in exit polls woefully lacking. In Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, there were a total of just two different religious questions for Republican voters. For Democrats, there were no questions on religion in the first three states!

Thanks to exit polling data, we know evangelicals in Iowa fueled Sen. Ted Cruz’s victory and that businessman Donald Trump narrowly won evangelicals in New Hampshire even as he scored a crushing victory overall.

We also know Trump won evangelicals in Nevada and South Carolina and even narrowly won among voters in the Palmetto State who said it mattered to them that a candidate shared their religious beliefs. Despite all the attention given to faith by candidates and pundits, we know little else on religion from the exit polls.

Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada only included a question about evangelicals, while South Carolina also included the shared religious beliefs question. In New Hampshire and South Carolina, pollsters also quizzed voters on their support for banning Muslims from entering the United States.

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While those responses show some troubling perspectives on religious liberty, answers to that policy-focused question do not offer insights into the religious background of voters.

How did Catholics vote? We do not know—even though in the 2012 general election Catholics accounted for more than one-quarter of the Iowa’s electorate and nearly 40 percent of the New Hampshire vote.

Catholics outnumbered evangelicals in the 2012 general election turnout in New Hampshire by more than three-to-one and edged out evangelicals in Nevada, but exit pollsters only asked about evangelicals this month. It could be insightful to see how Catholics like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did among their co-religionists.

On the Democratic side, the exit polls remain even more sinful. Democratic primary voters are treated as if religion does not matter. Only South Carolina, where pollsters asked about frequency of religious service attendance, included any religion questions. Removing religious questions from the Democratic exit polls helps perpetuate the myth that the Democratic Party is the secular party or that G.O.P. stand for “God’s Only Party.”

This dearth of exit polling for religion occurred despite the fact Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton talks openly about her Methodist faith. And it occurs despite the fact President Obama talked about his faith in a more evangelical manner than either of his general election opponents. Both John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 shied away from many personal faith remarks and included fewer biblical references in their speeches than did Obama.

Even merely adding the one question asked in each state to Republican voters may provide interesting data. In the 2012 general election, Obama grabbed 35 percent of the white evangelical vote in Iowa, 25 percent in New Hampshire and 28 percent in Nevada. If nonwhite evangelicals were included, his share of the evangelical vote would have risen. Yet these evangelicals remain ignored in 2016 Democratic exit polls.

Why only ask Republican voters if they are evangelicals? Do Democratic evangelicals favor Clinton or her opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders, a non-practicing Jew? I could offer a guess, but Trump does well with many evangelicals so we do not know for sure. In South Carolina, we learned Clinton did much better among those with more frequent religious service attendance, while Sanders improved among those who rarely attend.

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Adding more questions for Democratic voters beyond the evangelical question could shed light on what type of voters are resonating with the various candidates. It would also highlight important diversity. In the 2012 general election, one-quarter of New Hampshire voters and one-third of Nevada voters identified with either a non-Christian religion or with no religion. Now exit pollsters act as if those voters are invisible.

It is time for exit pollsters to find religion. I pray exit polls and coverage of the primaries will soon offer a more detailed, nuanced and accurate look at voters and the roles religion may play in voting preferences.

Brian Kaylor, a Baptist minister, is an award-winning author with three books on religion and politics. His newest book is “Sacramental Politics: Religious Worship as Political Action” (2015). Find him on Twitter: @BrianKaylor.

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