America's most and least religious states: How could this shape Democrats’ future strategy?

There’s a solid local angle for every U.S. media outlet in 2016 polling that Gallup applies to ranking all 50 states in order of religiosity. Beyond collecting hometown reactions, reporters can factor in Pew Forum’s 2015 survey on religious identifications in each state’s population. Both data sets benefit from huge random samples.

Gallup counts as “very religious” the 38 percent of respondents who said they attend worship nearly every week and that religion is important to them. The “moderately religious” (30 percent) met only one of those two criteria, and the “nonreligious” (32 percent) met neither. Gallup’s “nonreligious” are similar to, but not identical with, Pew’s “nones” who lack religious identity.

Also, a rough political scenario can be developed by comparing Gallup rankings with the 2016 vote. President Trump won 23 of the 25 most religious states, the exceptions being No. 19 Virginia, whose pious Senator Tim Kaine was on the Democratic ticket, and heavily Hispanic New Mexico at No. 21. Mr. Trump romped in the eight states where half or more of respondents were “very religious” -- Mississippi, followed by Alabama, Utah, South Dakota, South Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton carried nine of the 10 most “nonreligious” states. Tops was Bernie Sanders’ Vermont (at 58 percent ), followed by Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Nevada, Alaska (the oddity with a big Trump win), Oregon, Connecticut, Hawaii and Washington state. Next on the nonreligious scale were closely fought New Hampshire, then the two states that accounted for Clinton’s popular vote margin, New York and California (each with 40 percent nonreligious).

Where and how might the troubled Democrats improve their prospects?

One proposal: Forget the popular vote, build the right Electoral College lineup among 50 separate state elections plus D.C., and recognize the significance of religious dynamics.  

Last year, The Religion Guy kept lamenting press inattention to non-Hispanics who identify as Catholic, a swing vote up for grabs that shifted Republican. There’s no hard evidence this stemmed from clergy influence, but whatever is happening the Democrats need to figure it out.

Ponder Gallup and Pew numbers for three states where Trump managed shocking victories, though by less than a percent:     

Wisconsin: The citizenry identifies as 25 percent Catholic (and 22 percent evangelical Protestant) but is a modest No. 27 on Gallup’s state religiosity ranking, which by conventional rule of thumb should help Democrats.

Pennsylvania: Similarly, the population identifies as 24 percent Catholic (and only 19 percent evangelical), with a middling No. 25 on religiosity.

Michigan: Its population is only 18 percent Catholic but 25 percent evangelical, with a rather weak No. 29 on religiosity.  

Then there’s Minnesota: Trump came within 1.5 percent of stealing this supposedly “blue” state, ranked No. 28 on religiosity. Unusually, “mainline” Protestants (29 percent) outnumber Catholics (22 percent) and evangelicals (19 percent). 

Also, New Hampshire: Clinton won but by less than a percent in a state that’s a low No. 40 in religiosity and has few evangelicals, which should help Democrats, but 26 percent identify as Catholic.

Turn to staunchly Republican white evangelical Protestants (Democrats automatically sweep African-American Protestants, while white “mainline” Protestants are split and also declining):  As with Catholics, voters who identify culturally as evangelicals are distinct from the smaller number who are  active churchgoers holding evangelical beliefs (the former were notably fonder toward Mr. Trump than the latter).

Case studies:

North Carolina (Trump-Pence won by 3.7 percent): Democrats face a population that’s 47 percent “very religious” and 35 percent evangelical in identification. Except for this piety factor, it might be solidly “blue.” Republicans have regularly prevailed except in 2008.   

Georgia (Trump-Pence won by 5.2 percent): Democrats must do better with a citizenry that’s likewise 47 percent “very religious,” and fully 38 percent evangelical. In recent elections Democrats have only won by nominating southerners, and Southern Baptists, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Virginia (Clinton-Kaine won by 5.3 percent): The populace is 42 percent “very religious,” and 30 percent evangelical, yet has been trending Democratic.

Florida (Trump-Pence won by 1.2 percent): This complex swing state, a perpetual Democratic target, is only 24 percent evangelical and a mere No. 32 in religiosity.  

The data indicate that except for those four, Democrats will waste their time and money in southern states with strong religiosity and large evangelical numbers. Ditto for heavily Mormon Utah. 

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