Non-Religious or ‘Unaffiliated’ Voters Losing Faith in Democrats, Research Shows

By Penny Starr | October 14, 2010 | 6:27 AM EDT

Greg Smith is a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center's Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. He spoke at a panel discussion at the National Press Club on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010 about the role religion will play in the mid-term elections. ( Starr)

( - People who identify themselves as not religious or “unaffiliated” with a particular religion are as important to the Democratic base as religious conservatives are to the GOP. But this “non-religious or unaffiliated” demographic is turning away from Democrats, a senior researcher with the Pew Research Center said on Wednesday.

Among the religiously “unaffiliated,” there’s been a 7-point drop in support for the Democratic Party in recent Pew polls, said Greg Smith of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.  He spoke at a panel discussion on the role religion may play in the mid-term election. The event at the National Press Club was hosted by Catholic University.

Another panelist, Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, said his organization’s polling reveals an even sharper, 11-point drop in support for Democrats among religiously “unaffiliated” voters.

Smith said that in 2008, Barack Obama and the Democrats were able to appeal to voters “across the board,” including evangelicals and Americans of other faiths.

“It’s true that Obama, that the Democrats, made inroads among pretty much everyone in 2008,” Smith said.  “It was a good year for Democrats,” Smith added.

But, Smith said, those Democratic inroads have not narrowed what he called the “God Gap,” which holds that the more often Americans go to church or other worship services, the more likely they are to vote Republican. “In fact, it (the God gap) may even have widened a little bit,” he said.

The consensus of the panel was that religion continues to play a significant role in American politics, including at the presidential level.

When asked how the religious views of President Barack Obama might influence the mid-term elections, Smith said he was not sure, but he said religion plays a significant role in what people think of the president.

“We do know from polling that we conducted this summer, that the number of people who think Obama is Muslim has grown over the last several years from…11 percent in 2008 or so to 18 percent, I think is what we found this summer.

“What I think is even more interesting, though … is not how many people think he’s a Muslim, but how many people -- even among his supporters -- say they don’t know what he is.

“So Democrats, for instance, haven’t become more likely to say he’s Muslim, but they have become less likely to say he’s Christian and more likely to say, ‘You know, I just don’t know what his religion is,’” Smith said.

Americans favor a religious commander-in-chief, Smith said. “We do know that when we ask people is it important to you for the president to have strong religious beliefs, people overwhelming and consistently – time after time after time – tell us yes, it is important to me.”

Jones said his polling data shows support for Obama among evangelicals has slipped from 26 to 21 percent.

The poll findings discussed at the event were conducted in August and early September among registered voters 18 and older.