Do Evangelicals Still Love the GOP? It Depends on Skin Color

Featured Image Credit: Who What Why

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

One of my favorite types of analysis is looking at long term trends in American religion. I wanted to try and understand a really broad phenomenon: how have born-again Protestants shifted their party identification over the last decade? It’s been a volatile one for many conservative Protestants. After the George W. Bush presidency, the Republican Party has not nominated a bona fide evangelical and the culture wars have largely dissipated in the light of the Obergefell decision. Has this led to defection from the GOP by evangelicals?

The Cooperative Congressional Election Study asked its respondents, “Generally speaking do you think of your as a…?” The response options were Democrat, Republican, or Independent. The graph above displays the changes in these responses among the entire population of born-again individuals from 2006 to 2016.

One thing is exceedingly clear: the GOP brand got a big boost from the Obama campaign among born-agains. In fact, the number of evangelicals who identified as Republican jumped nearly 10 points between 2006 and 2008. However, this jump was short lived. By 2010 the percent of born-again Protestants who identified as Republicans had stabilized to the mid-40s and has remained there for the last eight years. The percentage of those who identify as Democrats has increased, on the other hand from 23% identifying as a Democrat in 2006 to 32% in 2016.

Maybe the clearest factor that divides born-again Protestants into smaller groups is race. The above graph looks just at those born-agains who are white. It’s clear that the shifts that have been seen in the overall born-again population have not been seen here. 55% of white evangelicals identified as Republican in 2006 and that number didn’t budge through 2016. The number of independents did increase, however, but very slightly and this shifted was a mirror opposite of the GOP shift. . So, if the entire born-again sample saw a shift in partisanship but the white sample shows no major evidence of change then much of the volatility must be due to other racial groups.

The above graph only looks at black evangelicals, and signs of change are clear. Black Protestants have always been closely aligned with the Democrats and that’s borne out in this data. However, what is worth noting is that the relationship between the Democratic party and black evangelicals is only getting stronger as time passes. In 2006, about ⅔ of black evangelicals identified as Democrats, today it is ⅘. That’s a noticeable increase and that has come as a direct result of fewer black evangelicals identifying as either independents or Republicans. In fact, less than 5% of black evangelicals in 2016 identified as a member of the GOP.

What may be the most shocking change comes from Hispanic evangelicals. In 2006, a Hispanic evangelical was just as likely to identify as a Republican as a white evangelical. However, what has occurred since then has been dramatic. In 2016, just 41% of Hispanic born-agains identified as a Republican, while 34% identify as a Democrat. The gap between Republican and Democrat identities was nearly forty points in 2006, now it’s just seven points and that difference is not statistically significant. It’s also notable that the share of independents has not changed statistically. That’s an unsettling change in you are a Republican trying to court the religious vote.

I have written about Hispanics on Religion in Public before, but suffice to say: they are an interesting group. They are more socially conservative than white evangelicals but are more likely to vote for a Democrat candidate. It seems that this trend is only going to continue with Republican President Donald Trump going out of his way to disparage members of the Hispanic community and swiftly ramping up deportations and detainments on the border.

Taken together, what we seem to have is an evangelical community that is becoming ever so slightly more Democratic, as a whole. The impetus behind this shift however, is likely due more to the racial politics of the Republican Party than to religion. White evangelicals have not budged in their support of the GOP while Blacks and Hispanics have seen their allegiances shift more strongly to the Democratic Party over the last ten years. The share of evangelicals that are Hispanic is small but growing. So, if current trends continue it means that evangelicalism will have a tremendous divide, not on matters of theology but on matters of race (more specifically white evangelicals vs evangelicals of color). It’s unlikely that these divisions will be easily overcome.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

Full coding syntax for this analysis is available on my Github.

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