Race affects how voters view faith

A survey released Thursday shows striking racial and religious divides over the role of religion in presidential politics.

More black and Hispanic millennials -- ages 18 to 25 -- said that it was important that a presidential candidate hold religious beliefs than white millennials, according to survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Nearly 70% of black and 57% of Hispanic millennials indicated that religious beliefs were important, while white young millennials with this belief were in the minority. Only 44% said it was important, while 53% said it wasn't important.

"There are striking differences along racial lines about the role of faith in the lives of presidential candidates," Dr. Thomas Banchoff, director of the Berkley Center, said in a release about the poll. "Strong majorities of black and Hispanic younger millennials say it is important for presidential candidates to have strong religious beliefs, while a majority of white younger millennials disagree."

Overall, there was a near equal divide among all millennials -- with 49% saying religious beliefs among presidential candidates is important and 48% saying the opposite.

The poll also shows that a desire for a candidate with strong religious values benefits Romney, not Obama.

The poll asked millennials whether certain traits -- like honesty, trustworthiness and leadership -- fit Romney or Obama more. The president did particularly well in all these traits, except for one -- "has strong religious beliefs."

"The majority of millennials said that that trait went to Romney," said Dan Cox, research director for the polling firm. According to the poll, 54% said that trait best described Romney, while 32% selected Obama.

Even in that question, though, there was a racial divide. Of black young millennials, 69% said "has strong religious beliefs" described Obama, while 22% selected Romney.

Religion has played a small but noticeable role in the current presidential showdown between Obama, a Christian, and Romney, a Mormon. Romney has used religion as a dividing issue with Obama, challenging the president on issues of religious freedom, contraception and the role of religion in American life.

The poll also finds that a group once thought to be politically up for grabs -- white evangelical Protestants -- are decidedly Republican. "Eight-in-ten (80 percent) white evangelical Protestant younger Millennial voters... favor Romney," reads the poll.

This statistic bucks both conventional wisdom and the hopes of some Democratic operatives who felt that younger evangelicals would be more likely to support Democrats because of their age. Earlier this year, in a conference call with reporters, faith advisers to the Democratic National Committee indicated that they hoped to make gains in this demographics of voters.

While Romney also has a slim majority in white mainline Protestant young millennials, Obama maintains a lead in younger Catholics, religiously unaffiliated voters and minority Protestant voters.

These demographics may prove important in November's election because these religious voters -- particularly the millennials -- are excited to vote. Two-thirds (66%) of these young millennials are registered to vote, according to the survey, and half those registered stating that "are absolutely certain they will vote in 2012."

"One of the most striking findings of the survey is the impact of parental example on younger millennial voter engagement and voting preferences," said Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute. "Younger millennials whose parents brought them to the voting booth as children are significantly more likely to be registered to vote, and younger millennials who have two parents supporting the same presidential candidate are closely following the vote choices of their parents."

The poll of 1,214 adults aged 18 to 25 was conducted online between August 28 and September 10. The margin of error for the entire poll is 4.3 percentage points.