Joe Biden leads Donald Trump in GOP-heavy Utah — at least by this measure

Poll shows political partisanship shapes how Beehive State voters view the religiosity of politicians.

(The New York Times) Former President Donald Trump, left, and President Joe Biden. A new poll shows Utah voters are more inclined to see Biden as a "person of faith."

Joe Biden may be trailing Donald Trump among Utahns in this year’s chase for the White House, but the Democratic president does lead his chief Republican rival in at least one category:

Beehive State voters are more inclined to see Biden as a “person of faith.”

A Deseret News-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll of 801 registered voters shows 47% of respondents view Biden as a person of faith, compared with 33% for Trump.

Among Republicans, though, those numbers flip, according to the Jan. 16-21 survey, with 47% seeing Trump, a politician known for flouting many of the traditional values American Christians revere, as a person of faith, compared with 33% for Biden, a famously committed Catholic who can often be found attending Mass.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

As for Democrats, 12% call Trump a person of faith, while 80% view Biden that way.

There’s an easy explanation for these otherwise head-scratching results, said Zoe Nemerever, assistant professor of political science at Utah Valley University.

“Being a person of faith is generally seen as a good thing,” she said. “And you’re more likely to evaluate members of your own party more generously.”

Accounting for political party

Quin Monson, a political scientist at church-owned Brigham Young University, said the results fit squarely within a larger trend political scientists have been witnessing for a number of years.

More and more, how Americans respond to polls has less to do with their lived realities or the information they’re presented with, he said, and more to do with how they think their answers may help their political team or hurt the opposing one.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“When you ask about the economy,” Monson said, “or even about people’s personal economic circumstances, [those answers] are increasingly tied to partisanship. …People are cheering for their team.”

The outlier: Romney

The Deseret News-Hinckley Institute survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, also asked about Utah’s outgoing Republican senator, Mitt Romney.

Overall, 77% of voters identify him as a person of faith. That figure rises to 82% among Democrats and holds steady (76%) among those in his own party.

Nemerever speculated a few reasons for this.

First, she said, is that Democratic respondents may have been comparing Romney to high-profile members of their own party, individuals like Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California or Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. Both are religious but tend to keep that identity closer to their chest than many national Republican politicians.

(Zoe Nemerever) Zoe Nemerever teaches political science at Utah Valley University. How Americans view politicians' religiosity, she said, has a lot to do with whether the latter's party aligns with their own.

Nemerever also believed that Romney’s role as the sole Republican senator to vote to remove Trump from office in the former president’s first impeachment trial might have something to do with how the GOP respondents answered the question.

Political journalist McKay Coppins, author of “Romney: A Reckoning” and a Latter-day Saint himself, echoed this point.

The senator “takes his faith very seriously,” he said, but “he hasn’t always been a loyal partisan Republican in the Trump years.”

He, too, suspected that to “some voters, that disqualifies him from being considered a good Christian or a good Latter-day Saint.”

‘A changing understanding of religion and politics’

Beyond partisanship and its impact on polling, the new survey speaks to “a changing understanding of religion and politics in America,” argued statistician Ryan Burge.

Burge, who teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University, has written about shifts in how Americans perceive spirituality and religion, including among the ever-growing number of the nation’s nonreligious, or “nones.”

For many “religiously active individuals,” he said, faith “is more than a belief — it must be coupled with religious actions like attending religious services regularly.”

People who are less involved in a religious community, in contrast, “see religion more symbolically.”

For this crowd, “being a person of faith means holding to a set of values about sexual orientation and gender identity. It means cultural conservatism.”

As evidence, he pointed to a finding that, according to a Deseret News story, 54% of Republican Latter-day Saint respondents who identify as “somewhat active” or “not active” describe Trump as a person of faith. For those who identify as “very active” members, that number falls to 41%.

That’s because the less-active crowd, Burge argued, “see Trump as religious because he defends their understanding of religious values,” rather than whether he goes to church.