TIME Poll: Faith of the Candidates

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The hoary joke that a "religious Democrat" is more of an oxymoron than "jumbo shrimp" couldn't be more wrong in this election cycle, in which it's the Democrats who are talking comfortably about faith while their Republican counterparts dodge the subject. Even so, as the results of a new TIME poll show, the conventional wisdom about the two political parties and religion may be so ingrained that no amount of evidence to the contrary can change perceptions. That may very well help Republicans in 2008 despite their various religion issues. And it may also mean that most Democrats, with one important exception, will have to try twice as hard to reach faith-minded voters.

As Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy report in this week's TIME cover story, the three Democratic frontrunners are leading a fundamental shift in how their party thinks about religious Americans, which includes the first party-wide effort to target and court Catholic and evangelical voters. Republicans, meanwhile, have been lining up to receive the seal of approval from Pat Robertson and James Dobson. But at the same time, Mitt Romney has gone to great lengths to avoid talking about his Mormonism, John McCain's religious advisors quit his campaign in disgust, and when the AP inquired as to what church Rudy Giuliani attended, the former mayor essentially told them to mind their own business.

In spite of all that, according to the new TIME poll, only 15% of registered voters believe that Hillary Clinton is "strongly religious," compared to 22% for John Edwards and 24% for Barack Obama. Perhaps more problematic for Clinton is the fact that nearly one-quarter of respondents (24%) say they know she is "not religious" — that's almost twice the nearest candidate, Rudy Giuliani (13%).

On this point, Clinton undoubtedly suffers from the double whammy of being a Democrat and a Clinton. Even Democrats tended to chalk up her husband's religious fluency to his general political skill, the ability to be everything to everyone, while Republicans saw him as a fake who exploited religion for political purposes and pandered to voters. Now Senator Clinton, the lifelong Methodist and one-time Sunday school teacher, is in a bind: So many voters think they "know" she can't possibly be religious that when she speaks about her faith, they interpret it as pure political posturing.

Still, for at least one Democrat, another piece of conventional wisdom is working in his favor. Democrats have long outsourced religion to their African-American members, showing up in black churches the weekend before elections to clap along to gospel tunes, and treating black ministers as cuddly social justice mascots. As a result, black politicians rarely need to prove their religiosity-they're given the benefit of the doubt. Obama is no exception. On the ranking of candidates with strong faith, Obama comes in second (24%) among all voters. And even Republican voters put him (18%) above John McCain (17%), Rudy Giuliani (14%), and Newt Gingrich (14%).

When it comes to the Republican field, Mitt Romney ranks far above the rest of the pack. Fully 26% of all voters think Romney is a person of strong religious faith, and among Republicans that number rises to 32%. What should worry Republicans, however, is that Romney's numbers are nearly double the closest Republican and still far below George W. Bush's in 2004. They also suggest an opening for Fred Thompson, who is expected the enter the race within weeks. James Dobson may have declared on his radio show that Thompson isn't a Christian, but given the alternatives, social conservatives are likely to disagree.

But the lack of excitement about the Republican field may help Obama as well. His general favorability rating amongst red state voters equals that of Rudy Giuliani at 56%. And because Obama has a relatively low unfavorable rating in red states (30% versus Giuliani's 35%), his net favorability rating among red state voters (+26%) is actually better than any of the Republican candidates. Nor do his Democratic opponents come close — Edwards' net rating is +13 and Clinton's is zero, with 48% of red state voters on each side of the question.

Finally, the poll found that Americans have strong views about religion and politics in the era of George W. Bush. In May 2004, half (49%) of American voters said President Bush's faith made him a strong leader while only 36% said it made him too closed-minded. Today, voters have reversed their opinion about the role of Bush's faith: 50% now say it makes him too closed-minded and 34% say it makes him a strong leader. Similarly, while in 2004, only 27% said that Bush's use of faith did more to divide the country rather than unite it, today, 43% feel that way.

There is evidence of that division in the poll. By a two-to-one margin (62% to 29%), Republicans say a president should use his or her faith to guide presidential decisions. By contrast, Democrats reject this idea by a similar two-to-one margin (58% to 32%). In the same way, while three-quarters of Democrats say the president should not use his or her own interpretation of the Bible to make public decisions, Republicans are about evenly split (46% to 43%) on this. And while the overwhelming majority of Republican voters (71%) agree that religious values should serve as a guide to what political leaders do in office, 56% of Democrats disagree with this.

It remains to be seen whether Democratic voters would feel differently about any of these issues if one of their candidates took back the White House in 2008. It could be that respondents find it difficult to separate their general views on the questions from their opinions about Bush and religion. But it's also possible that the last seven have indeed fundamentally shifted the way many Americans think about religion and politics. The answer to that key question is something the Democratic frontrunners will be working to figure out.

To view the complete poll results, visit http://www.pulsarresearch.com/TIME.html