But I promise you, this post is going to be about religion. Because if you want to understand this election, you need to understand religion in America. If you’re looking for a single reason why Trump won, as well as where Trump won (and lost), religion is the place to start. The headline here is a simple one:
Trump owes his election to white Christian America.
Not the entirety of white Christian America, of course. Plenty of white Christians voted for Clinton. I estimate that 90% of the white Christians I know—those who speak to me about such things—voted for Clinton. (Which goes to show the kind of white Christians I hang around with!) I know better than to speak of any group as a monolith. But when we speak about religion in politics, we look at predominant trends. If you’re white and Christian, you may have voted for Clinton, but chances are good you voted for Trump. If you are not a white Christian, you still may have voted for Trump. 24% of my fellow American Jews voted for Trump. But if you’re not white and Christian, chances are good that you voted for Clinton.
In fact, as best as I can tell, no other single factor is more predictive of how Americans voted—as I’ll discuss in more detail in just a bit.
But … to understand this election, let’s take a few steps back.
The first thing to note about the 2016 election is that it was very similar to the 2012 election. Clinton received just about as many votes in 2016 as Obama did in 2012—remarkable, since many more people voted for third party candidates in 2016. Obama won the 2012 popular vote by a bit less than 4%; Clinton won the 2016 popular vote by a bit more than 2%. While Clinton’s vote margin compared to Obama’s slipped by only 1.8%, this slippage was concentrated exclusively in the 13 swing states that decided the election (Clinton performed slightly better than Obama in the other 37 states and District of Columbia). Where Obama won 11 of these swing states in 2012, Clinton won only 5 of them in 2016. Still: Trump’s margin of victory was razor-thin. A total of only 70,000 votes separated Clinton from Trump in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin–put those states in Clinton’s column, and she’d be the next President of the United States.
The factors that determined the 2012 vote also drove the vote in 2016. The four factors that best predicted the vote were age, race, education and religion. As in prior elections, voters under 40 supported the Democratic candidate (in this election, the margin was about 53% to 39%); older voters supported the Republican. White voters supported Trump by a margin of about 58% to 37%, while non-white voters supported Clinton by a huge margin, 74% to 21%.
Without a doubt, race was a critical dividing line in the 2016 election. But we can better understand the racial divide in the U.S. electorate if we consider race along with two other factors: religion and education. True enough, Trump won the white vote by 21%, but he doubled this margin among white voters with a high school education or less. Trump’s margin shrank among better educated white voters—Clinton won by a 13% margin among white voters who have engaged in post-graduate study.
We see even more dramatic differences in the white vote if we consider race along with religion. But before we get to religion, let’s quickly dismiss an idea in common circulation, that Trump won the election because he appealed so strongly to white “working class” voters. If by “working class” we mean voters who have been hurt economically by the loss of industrial jobs in places like the Midwest “rust belt” … well, we can take the idea that Trump appealed most to economically disadvantaged white voters, and toss it out the nearest window. There’s simply no evidence linking Trump’s support among white voters to income level:
|TRUMP MARGIN-WHITE VOTERS|
|FAMILY INCOME||NO COLLEGE DEGREE||COLLEGE DEGREE OR MORE|
Average family income in the U.S. is about $50,000. Knowing this, we can see that Trump did best with white voters who make higher than average salaries. Unless “working class” means “relatively high-earning white people,” there’s nothing in the economic data to indicate Trump strength among the “white working class.”
Of course, we might define a “class” of white Trump supporters in a way that does not depend entirely on income. Which is what I hope to do … but in a later post.
Let’s get back to what I proposed to discuss in the first place: the intersection of religion with the politics of the 2016 election. As we’ve already seen, Trump won the 2016 election the way Republicans win elections these days, with a high percentage of the white vote. But the white vote is not a monolith. By all indications, Clinton handily won the vote of white “nones”—people who cannot be classified by their identification with a particular faith. “Nones” consist of atheists, agnostics and people unaffiliated with any religion. The exit polls indicate that Clinton beat Trump among all “nones” by a margin of 68% to 26%. We don’t have a breakdown of the “nones” vote by race, but since 71% of the “nones” are white, it is likely that Clinton won at least 60% of the white “nones” vote. If you consider Jews to be white people, then this is another group of whites who supported Clinton. Clinton probably did even better among Jews than among “nones”—she took 71% of the Jewish vote, compared to 24% for Trump.
Trump lost the white Jewish vote, and the white “nones” vote, but he swept the field with white Christians. This is what Ralph Reed meant when he said that Clinton would have won the election if “the Rapture occurred” just prior to Election Day. If self-identifying white evangelicals were somehow swept into the sky before having a chance to vote, politics in the United States would be dominated by the Democratic Party. As with every year in recent memory, white Christian evangelicals supported the Republican candidate in 2016 in overwhelming numbers, while the rest of the country overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party candidate:
Now, I should mention that I’ve grown skeptical of polls that try to measure “evangelical” support for this candidate or that. There’s one obvious problem with using “evangelical” to identify Trump’s base of support: not all evangelicals are white, and evangelicals of color (like all religious people of color) were strong Clinton supporters. But even if we’re careful to identify Trump’s evangelical supporters as “white evangelicals”, I still have my doubts about the use of the label “evangelical” in political polling. Let’s note that “conservatives” supported Trump by an 81% to 15% margin, nearly the same margin Trump enjoyed with “white evangelicals”. Could it be that when it comes to polling, some Protestants will self-identify as “evangelical” simply because they are politically conservative? Recognizing this problem, some pollsters reject evangelical self-identification, and label voters as “evangelical” based on their answers to questions about Biblical authority, their willingness to proselytize and other similar matters.
Because there are reasons to doubt whether “white evangelical” is a meaningful religious category in political polling, I prefer to look at the voting patterns of white Christians overall. Here, I’ll use some of the data supplied to me by Robert Jones of PRRI:
While we don’t have all of the numbers in the above charts for 2016, the overall picture is clear. The percentage of white Christians in the U.S. is dropping (more on this in my next post). But this smaller number of white Christians has grown increasingly more Republican, meaning that the Republicans are growing more dependent on a shrinking voting block. The Republicans are surviving (and temporarily at least, thriving) by winning larger and larger shares of this white Christian vote. Bill Clinton’s voting base was 60% white Christian; Hillary Clinton’s voting base was probably around 30% white Christian. While Trump lost the white non-Christian vote by around 30%, he won the white Christian vote by at least 30%.
Let’s look at some additional data highlighting the importance of the white Christian vote to the Republican Party. Not only do white Christians vote Republican, the most devoted white Christians vote the most Republican. If we measure religious commitment by frequency of religious attendance, the pattern is clear: the greater a person’s religious commitment, the more likely it is that the person votes Republican:
|2016 Presidential Vote|
|Weekly or more||40%||56%|
|A few times a year||48%||47%|
(By the way, Jews who frequently attend religious services were ALSO more likely to vote Trump. This may reflect Orthodox Jewish support for Trump. But note that even Orthodox Jews did not support Trump at white Christian levels.)
Does the importance of the white Christian vote explain why Clinton did relatively badly in swing states? Yes. Let’s consider four critical “rust belt” swing states won by Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. These are the states (along with Iowa) that many believe cost Clinton the election. These states all have high concentrations of white Christians. Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan are between 51% and 60% white Christian. Wisconsin (along with Iowa) are more than 60% white Christian. All of these states are red states in the map below. (This map is courtesy of Robert Jones at PRRI.)
I’ll give you one last set of data to describe the importance of religion to present-day American politics. We’ve already seen that Trump received a larger percentage of the white evangelical vote than either Romney or McCain. (He also received a larger percentage of the white evangelical vote than did Bush in 2000 and 2004.) But Trump succeeded with white evangelicals in a second important way: he got a larger percentage of them to turn out and vote. The chart below is again from Robert Jones:
I’ve presented a lot of words and pictures here to make a simple point. Statistically speaking, and in general terms, white Christian America elected Donald Trump over the opposition of every other identifiable religious group in America.
Yes, it is important not to overgeneralize. As with so many discussions regarding religion, we must firmly keep intra-religious diversity in mind, and avoid stereotyping. Clinton received white Christian votes, just as Trump received votes from Jews, Muslims and non-white Christians. I have way too much respect for Christians and Christianity to assign them the blame (or the credit) for the Trump election.
Still, the question hangs out there. How is it that Trump (described in one Christian Post opinion piece as a man “who embodies everything Christ warned Christians against in the Sermon on the Mount”) manage to win perhaps the highest percentage of the white Christian vote ever measured? That’s a question I’ll try to tackle in my next post.