7 Religion Stories to Watch in the 2012 Battleground States

With the nominating contest all but over, attention now turns to the electoral map and the key states that will decide the Romney vs. Obama 2012 contest. While more than a few reporters are heading to Utah these days to chase the Romney-Mormon angle (never mind that the state is definitely Not In Play), religion also promises to play a role in the battleground states this November. Here is a first look at potential stories to watch.

Florida: Proof that not all Southern evangelicals dislike Romney.

Everyone’s favorite Florida religion storyline fixates on older Jewish voters who perennially threaten to ditch Democrats for not being strong enough on Israel. Jews may make up only 3% of Florida, but margins are tight enough—Obama now leads by .4%—that their votes matter. An emerging storyline is that Latino evangelicals (who lean conservative on social issues but prioritize immigration reform) may also matter as a swing voter demographic. But the big numbers will come from white evangelicals and Catholics, who make up 26%. Romney performed well among Catholics in the primaries, and better among evangelicals here than he did in South Carolina or Iowa. Why Florida evangelicals feel better about Romney is a story that remains to be researched and told, and one that could potentially play a role in this big prize of the battleground states.

Nevada: Will Mormons drive the ground game?

Obama leads by 7 points in Nevada, which has one of the most transient and least religious populations in the country. Twenty-seven percent of Nevadans identify as Catholics, 13% as evangelical Christians, 11% as LDS/Mormon, and 11% as mainline Protestant. But 21% have no religious affiliation at all, making Nevada one of the least religious states in the union. And because population turnover rates are high, one-on-one voter contact can be more challenging. Ground game (door-to-door voter identification, contact, and mobilization) may prove crucial in getting voters to the polls, and here Romney’s quasi-hometown advantage among Republican Mormons—a population with excellent door-to-door skills—could be a point of strength.

New Hampshire: Can Romney convert the “nones”?

Of all the swing states, New Hampshire has the highest proportion of “nones” (individuals who report no religious affiliation): 26%. 29% of the state’s residents identify as Catholic, 23% as mainline protestant, and 11% as evangelical Christians; but for many New Hampshire voters these are nominal affiliations, a fact reflected in New Hampshire’s ranking (tied with Vermont) as the least religious state in the country. During the 2012 primaries, almost half of New Hampshire’s Republican “nones” went for Ron Paul. Despite his attempts to downplay Mormonism, Romney comes across as far more religious than Obama. Whether he can convert the Paul “nones” remains to be seen. Obama now leads by 3.5 points.

Colorado: Evangelical Christians plus a marijuana legalization initiative may create challenges for Romney.

Obama has been leading in polls here over the last month, though one recent poll places the two candidates in a dead heat. Colorado is just behind New Hampshire in the proportion of voters reporting no religious affiliation—25% of Coloradoans are “nones,” 23% evangelical Christians, 19% mainline Protestants, 19% Catholics, 2% LDS, and 2% Jews. But it’s evangelical Christians that Romney needs to worry about here. Romney won the 2008 GOP Primary in Colorado handily but suffered an unexpected loss to Rick Santorum in February 2012. Given the Mormon population in Colorado, voters here should harbor less hesitation about Romney than voters in Southern states; still, Romney still faces real opposition from Colorado evangelicals, including Colorado-born Bryan Fischer and the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family. Will Romney have to expend extra resources to bring Colorado evangelicals to the polls? And will a statewide ballot initiative on the legalization of marijuana bring younger voters (including younger Colorado evangelicals who some see as potential Democratic voters) to the polls in numbers Obama needs?

Pennsylvania: Clinton Catholics for Romney?

Obama is up by 7 points, but word has it that the Romney campaign aims to make a dent in the Philadelphia suburbs—or at least to force team Obama into dedicating resources there. Romney tends to run strong among Catholics, who make up 29% of the state, and he may have a shot at swaying the “Clinton Catholics” of 2008. This is one demographic that just might be a little bit receptive if Romney copped to being a member of a historically marginalized Christian faith. That is, if he dared.

Iowa and Virginia: How many white evangelicals will turn out?

Obama has a slim 3-point lead in Virginia; Romney is up by 2 points in Iowa. Both candidates face weaknesses among white evangelical voters. (Evangelical Christians make up 31% of Virginia and 24% of Iowa.) There’s no question that white evangelicals will largely vote Republican, partisanship being stronger than sectarianism, but how many of them will actually vote remains to be seen. And will anyone in the Republican camp bring ultra-conservative Christian opinion-makers like Iowa radio jock Steve Deace, an avowed Romney foe, into line by November?

Wisconsin: Catholics and collective bargaining.

Obama now leads by 12 points: that’s a comfortable margin. If he hopes to maintain it, religion watchers say he’ll need Wisconsin’s Catholic voters, who make up 29% of the population. (Evangelical Christians are 24%, mainline Protestants 23%.) One story to keep an eye on is the continuing battle over collective bargaining rights, which has remobilized religious progressives and drawn in more moderate Catholics and mainline Protestants as well. Will Obama be able to benefit?

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.