The fallibility of polling should make us more cautious than usual about exit poll results, but if viewed in context, they provide some interesting nuggets about the intersection of voters’ religious affiliations (or lack thereof) and political preferences.
White evangelical Christians remain firmly in the Republican camp. Whether male or female, or from the North or the South, they remain in a party increasingly defined by cultural, racial and emotional factors. To them, it does not matter whether President Trump was incompetent at addressing covid-19 or was personally corrupt; he was their warrior against “others” (elites, urbanites, minorities, immigrants). Politics is not about problem-solving but rather about “owning the libs.» Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” told me this group continues to punch far above its weight at the polls.
“While White evangelical Protestants have declined as a proportion of the population over the last decade, from 21 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2019, they have maintained an outsize presence at the ballot box, somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of voters,” Jones said. He described this as a “time machine,” whereby the White evangelical Christians’ outsize vote “has the effect of turning back the demographic clock by nearly a decade. In other words, we’re living in the demographic realities of 2020, but our elections are being conducted, demographically speaking, in 2012 America.”
After accounting for differences between the two post-election voting analysis and taking out non-Protestants (who may still identify as evangelical), White protestant evangelicals still make up 20 to 25 percent of the voting population and went heavily for President Trump. Trump received upwards of 81 percent of the population according to the National Election Pool and AP/VoteCast exit polls, roughly the same as in 2016. “Among key battleground states in the Sun Belt, Trump’s support was even higher: 82% in Florida, 89% in Georgia, 86% in North Carolina, and 82% in Texas,” Jones said. “In these increasingly competitive states, White evangelicals were the decisive force anchoring those states against the strong tides of demographic and cultural change.”
By contrast, Catholics — once a mainstay of the Democratic Party who, along with the Reagan Democrats, shifted to the GOP — now seem to be turning back to Democrats. The Post reports: “Catholics overall supported Biden — who will be only the second Catholic president — by 52 percent to 47 percent nationwide, a reversal from Trump’s 50 percent-to-46 percent edge in 2016. Preliminary exit polls show the shift was concentrated among White Catholics, who had supported Trump by a 24-point margin in 2016 and backed Republican nominee Mitt Romney by 19 points in 2012.” In the two exit poll surveys, Biden narrowed the gap with White Catholics to 12 to 13 points. The reason may have to do more with Biden than his own Catholicism.
“Particularly on the issue of racial justice, we are seeing some signs of a crack in Trump’s White Christian wall of support,” Jones said. “Most strikingly, while 7 in 10 White evangelicals continue to say that the police killing of African American men are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans (73% in 2015 and 70% in 2020), the proportion of White Catholics who agree with that perception has dropped 13 percentage points (71% in 2015 to 58% in 2020).” He noted that “compared to White evangelical Protestants, White Catholics are significantly less likely to be attracted to the harsh othering rhetoric that has resonated with the fears of White evangelicals; they hold significantly more charitable views of immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.”
Catholics will also likely be more receptive to the president-elect’s message of social justice, as reflected in the hymn he quoted during his victory speech: “ ‘And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, and make you shine just like the sun and hold you in the palm of his hand.’ «And now together, on eagles wings, we embark on the work that God and history have called upon us to do, with full hearts and steady hands, with faith in America and each other, with love of country, a thirst for justice.”
Finally, the most critical group of voters may be those with no religious identity at all. This group went from 15 percent of the electorate in 2016 to 21 percent in 2020. This group is likely to grow, Jones said, as its size expands with Gen Z voters who are “more progressive on a range of issues, and more supportive of a religiously and racially pluralistic society.” This makes this youngest generation of voters particularly receptive to Democrats’ message.
In sum, White evangelical Protestants are the backbone of the GOP, but their geographic concentration and population decline mean Republicans are living on borrowed time. Democrats who can appeal to non-evangelicals, non-White evangelicals and those who identify as “none of the above” stand to create an enduring coalition.