Primary alert! 5 faith facts about South Carolina and Nevada

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

Cathy Lynn Grossman

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The upcoming South Carolina and Nevada nominating contests are expected to shake up the 2016 presidential race again. And the mix of religious beliefs -- or lack of them -- in these states may well be a factor in the results.

Here are 5 faith facts about these states. Republicans in South Carolina and Democrats in Nevada pick their candidates Feb. 20. Republicans in Nevada choose theirs on Feb. 23, and Democrats in South Carolina on Feb. 27. (Follow the 5 Faith Facts series as the race runs through this contentious primary season.)

1. Evangelicals still matter in South Carolina.

Although the religious mix in the state is changing, the faith vote is significant. Even Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an irreligious Jew, bowed his head while attending a prayer breakfast organized by African-American faith leaders in Columbia, S.C., on Feb. 16.

The share of South Carolinians who identify as white and Christian dropped 16 percentage points, to 50 percent, between 2007 and 2015, according to Public Religion Research Institute.

White evangelical Protestants (the group that tends to favor son-of-a-pastor Sen. Ted Cruz ) took the strongest hit, declining 10 percentage points. Still, at 26 percent in 2015, this remains the largest single grouping based on religious self-identification.

White mainline Protestants (like Donald Trump, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) are now at 16 percent, down from 22 percent in 2007.

Only one group has held steady in eight years. White Catholics (like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush) make up 6 percent of South Carolina voters. Hispanic Catholics (like Sen. Marco Rubio) rose slightly, reaching 3 percent in the same time period.

Two groups that have traditionally been sources of strength for Democrats have shown increases.

Black Protestants (Ben Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist, may be an exception to the leaning-left majority) are now the state's second-largest religious group at 19 percent, up slightly from 17 percent in 2007. And South Carolina has a significant number of "nones" — people who claim no religious identity. They're now 17 percent, up from 10 percent in 2007, according to PRRI.

2. In Nevada, nones matter more.

People with no religious identity, the so-called nones, make up a whopping 30 percent of Nevada residents, up from 22 percent in 2007, according to PRRI. And many in this group are warming to Sanders.

White mainline Protestants grew slightly but still make up only 13 percent.

Meanwhile, evangelicals remain at 10 percent, unchanged in eight years. Catholics also held steady, at 12 percent, between the 2007 race and the 2015 start of the 2016 campaign. 

The two groups showing the biggest declines in religious market share were Mormons (down to 6 percent from 11 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (down to 9 percent from 13 percent.)

3. Religion continues to impact issues in the news.

Consider the hubbub over whether President Obama should nominate a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died suddenly on Feb. 13. It was a hot topic at the GOP debate hours after Scalia's death was announced.

Obama says he'll put forward a name. Both Democrats say he should do so, but the GOP candidates uniformly say they don't want anyone nominated or confirmed until after a new president is sworn in.

The candidates' response to any prospective justice may be shaped by the nominee's religion as well as his or her political ideology and legal views. And candidates' own religious beliefs might influence their preferences — or objections — to a nominee. Evangelical Christians, for example, may favor a justice who interprets the Constitution strictly by its word-for-word meaning, just as they take the Bible literally rather than viewing the text in the context of contemporary times.

There are no Protestants on the high court now. Scalia was Catholic, as are five other justices (the remaining three are Jewish). How important is it to reflect the nation where Protestants, while shrinking in numbers, are still a dominant force in the culture? Look for the issue to begin shaping the dynamics of the presidential primaries.

4. In the end, there's (almost) always mention of God -- or not.

Expect victory -- or concession -- speeches in South Carolina and Nevada to have tweet-able mentions of the Almighty. After New Hampshire, Trump said this:



Clinton, in her New Hampshire concession speech, went with a more traditional reaction:



But not all references after the Granite State primary were overtly religious. Sanders left out God but still made a moral plea in his victory speech:



5. Super Tuesday could change it all.

National religious trends will matter more when 14 primaries or caucuses are held March 1 for one or both parties.

Folks will choose their candidates in states from the Bible Belt to one of the nation's least religious states, Sanders' home base of Vermont. (Voting opens March 1 through 8 for Democrats living abroad.)

And this is just the start of America's political version of basketball's March Madness -- there will be more than two dozen more primaries and caucuses before April.

This is when the relative clout of conservative Christians -- evangelical or Catholic -- will be matched up with the rising power of the nones, whose values are not tethered to any particular theology or religious institutions.


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