How Faith-Based Voters — and the ‘Nones’— Affected the Election

Every vote counted in the tightly contested 2020 presidential race, which means that that even minor shifts among religious groups could have had an outsized impact on the outcome.

Row of voting booths at polling station during the 2020 American election.
Row of voting booths at polling station during the 2020 American election. (photo: Vesperstock / Shutterstock)

While Catholics played an important role in the presidential election, other groups of faith-based voters also had a key impact, as well as those Americans who say they do not have any religious affiliation. 

The fact that the election was so close in many of the battleground states means that even minor shifts among religious groups could have an outsized impact on the outcome. “When elections are really close, almost anything can explain the difference,” said John Green, a retired political scientist and former director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. 

In the weeks since the election, media reports have highlighted the role various religious groups may have played in Trump’s losses in battleground states, including Mormons in Arizona, evangelicals in Georgia, and Muslims in Michigan — in addition to the potential role that Catholics had in battleground states like Pennsylvania, as the Register has previously reported



In the 2016 election, white evangelicals were the most solidly pro-Trump religious group, with 81% backing him. This year, that support slipped to 76%, according to the national exit polls. “So it does look like a slight erosion, from 8 out of 10 voters to a little bit more than three quarters,” Green said. 

But Green said most of those losses were in solidly blue or red states where Trump was going to lose or win either way — not in the battleground states. Both Green and Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University,  disputed a Politico report suggesting that evangelicals may have cost Trump Georgia. 

“I’m not at all convinced that only 5% of white evangelicals in Georgia voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. My data pegs it much higher — 12%. Which means that there wasn’t a statistically significant difference in 2016 vs. 2020,” Burge said. 

But evangelicals may have mattered in another battleground state. “I do think that I am tentatively willing to say that Michigan was a state where Biden did much better with white evangelicals than Trump did. That may have played a role in his victory there,” Burge said. 

One issue is the reliability of exit polls. “Exit polling has never been great, but this year there's plenty of reason to believe it was much worse than normal,” Burge said, pointing to a Washington Post report that the National Exit Poll, conducted by Edison Research for many major media outlets, did not have the right demographic breakdown of voters, based on comparisons with other sources of such data, like the U.S. Census. 

Burge says a more reliable alternative is the Associated Press’ VoteCast, a survey which aims to account for the increasing number of voters casting their ballots early or by mail. That shows that Trump got 81% of the evangelical vote. There’s just one major caveat: AP VoteCast was launched in 2018 so it doesn’t allow for a comparison to the 2016 election to see if there was any movement of evangelical voters away from Trump. 



In Arizona, Mormon voters dissatisfied with Trump’s personal character could have had an impact, according to a report in the Deseret News, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. The newspaper cited a pre-election poll which showed that 75% of Arizona Mormons voted for Trump in 2016 and 76% would vote for him this time. That’s actually an increase of one percentage point, but the share of Mormons voting for the Democratic candidate went up significantly in the pre-election poll, from 9% for Hillary Clinton to 18% for Biden. 

But some political scientists are skeptical that Mormons helped turn Arizona blue. “The best data I have indicates that 3% of the Arizona population is LDS,” said Burge. “The AP VoteCast indicates that Trump actually did better with Mormons this time around. But even if he did worse, it would be one-third of one percent of the total votes cast. So, in short, I just don’t see it making a big difference.” 

Mormons are normally reliable Republican voters but some have been reluctant to support the thrice-married Trump who also has a history of alleged extramarital sexual activity and sexually vulgar comments. “Whatever else you may think of the president, he’s certainly not a poster child for family values,” Green said. 

Of course, for evangelical Christians and Catholics, the family is of vital importance as well, but Green said it does not play the central role in “the mechanics of salvation” the way it does for Mormons. The Latter-Day Saints believe that family relationships are eternal, in contrast to traditional Christians who point to Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:30 about the absence of marriage in heaven. “The Latter-Day Saints were just particularly sensitive, for theological reasons, to Trump’s own behavior,” Green said. 

In 2016, Mormon discontent with Trump helped fuel the candidacy of an independent candidate, Evan McMullin, who earned 21.3% of the vote in Mormon-dominant Utah, along with 17,449 write-in votes in Arizona, breaking a state record for write-ins. This time, McMullin endorsed Biden, who ended up winning Arizona by a razor-thin margin of 10,457 votes. 


The Jewish Vote

Another key religious demographic is the Jewish vote. Again, exit polling is conflicted. One conducted by J Street, a Jewish liberal advocacy group with a focus on Middle East politics, says Biden won 77% of the Jewish vote, with 21% for Trump. But the Republican Jewish Coalition’s own exit poll shows a smaller spread: 60.6% for Biden with 30.5% for Trump. Republicans have cited the poll to argue that Trump performed well with Jewish voters. Meanwhile, the AP VoteCast comes somewhat in the middle, with Biden at 68% and Trump at 30%.

One reason for the discrepancy is how the exit polls classified someone as Jewish. Unlike the other religious groups, American Jews are both a religious and an ethnic group. According to a report in the Jewish News of Northern California, exit polls that incorporate Jewish voters who view themselves as more culturally Jewish rather than religious will indicate a higher level of support for Biden due to the general tendency of secular voters to go Democratic.

“Any way you slice it, the majority of American Jews did not vote to re-elect the incumbent president,” Arielle Levites, a professor of Jewish studies and the managing director of the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education at George Washington University, told the Register. She said the outcome is consistent with the several past elections. 

The differences emerge when various Jewish religious communities are compared. In the cross tabs for the J Street poll, 79% of Orthodox Jews went for Trump while just 7% of Reformed Jews voted for the incumbent. “So those are pretty starkly different numbers there in terms of divergence in how American Jews with different denominational affiliations saw their choice this election,” Levites said. 

Among the voters in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish tradition, also known as Haredi Judaism, Trump could have made some gains, according to Levites. She said those voters tend to be concerned about religious freedom, support vouchers and religious education, and are more socially conservative. Another Jewish demographic more likely to lean Republican are those who hail from former socialist or communist countries like Venezuela and Cuba, Levites said. 

Ultimately, despite claims from partisans on both sides, Levites said it’s hard to claim one party more accurately represents Jewish interests and values over another. 

“Judaism is a pretty wide and deep tradition with a vast well of ideas which are rich and complex and it’s very difficult for any one party to lay total claim to what Judaism says or doesn’t say,” Levites said. “I think that both left- and right-leaning Jewish voters can find plenty of resources in Jewish tradition to anchor their politics and that Judaism is really fueling the politics of many American Jews today. Their religious beliefs help to deepen their commitment and passion about politics and voting but I think that Judaism is bigger than politics.” 



One smaller religious group that could have had an impact in a battleground state is Muslims in Michigan, according to Green, who noted that Detroit has a particularly high concentration of Muslims. “Wayne County, which is the area where Detroit is located, turned out to be really critical for Biden,” Green said. 

At the end of October, Religion News Service described Muslims as a “key vote” in a “must-win state,” noting that Muslim groups were mobilizing to vote in this presidential election. Nationwide, Muslims account for just 1% of the population, but in Michigan, they are close to 3%, according to data cited by the Detroit Metro Times

“The Muslim population tends to vote Democrat and many American Muslims have a particular problem with President Trump,” Green said.

In 2016, after a shooting at an Orlando nightclub by a native-born U.S. citizen who was the son of Afghan immigrants, Trump proposed a ban on Muslim immigration. Soon after taking office, Trump attempted to implement a version of his ban, targeting a number of Muslim-majority countries. Trump has also reduced U.S. refugee admissions to their lowest levels since the inception of the program in 1980, affecting many Muslims who are fleeing war-torn countries in the Middle East. 

Burge, however, is skeptical that Muslim voters actually affected the outcome in Michigan. “Muslims make up 3% of the population of Michigan and probably make up less than 2% of votes cast. They were overwhelmingly for Clinton in 2016, and I can’t see that really changing enough in 2020 to sway the outcome either way,” he said.  


Secular Voters

On one point there seems to be little dispute: secular voters are the most solidly Democratic voters — and they mattered a lot in the battleground states. “Religiously unaffiliated voters are key in every single state, now. They are 30% of the population and shifted pretty significantly to the Democrats this time,” Burge said. 

Data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), shows a major shift in party allegiances for those who say their religious affiliation is “nothing in particular.” In 2016, 45.8% of them voted Democrat, with a slight majority, 47.3%, going Republican. In this election, they flipped, with 60% turning out for Biden, and just 33% backing Trump. 

Agnostic and atheistic voters — already reliable Democratic voters — also intensified their support. Agnostic Americans went from 67.6% to 77% in favor of the Democratic presidential nominee. Likewise, atheists went from 77.2% to 84%. 

“In all the close states, the unaffiliated made up a significant portion of the Biden vote,” Green said. “Without those voters it’s hard for me to see how Biden would have won the close states that he won.” 

Collectively, atheists, agnostics, and the nothing-in-particular Americans have been dubbed as “the nones” by the Pew Research Center. While avowed atheists tend to be committed Democrats, religious unaffiliated voters are also Democratic leaning, but are less engaged, according to Green. 

There are several explanations why secular voters tend to be Democrats. One is that secular voters tend not to see America as a predominantly Christian nation, opposing what they view as a Republican approach to public policy and law that “privileges Christian identity and heritage,” as a FiveThirtyEight report put it. Also, by definition of being nonreligious, secular voters value philosophical and scientific authorities over religious ones, according to Green, which could explain their alignment with Biden and Democrats on issues like the COVID-19 pandemic, as opposed to faith-based groups which have chafed at some of the restrictions on religious gatherings. 

Secular voters are even more solidly Democratic than Jewish voters, according to Levites. In the 2018 midterm elections, only black Protestants voted for Democrats in higher numbers than the religiously unaffiliated — 94% to 75%, according to Pew Research Center data cited by FiveThirtyEight

Said Green, “The unaffiliated electorate is becoming a very important part of the Democratic coalition.”

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