Are White College Educated Female Evangelicals to Blame for the GOP’s Success?

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

I am trying to wrap my head around what happened in the 2018 Midterms, specifically regarding religion. There have been a few data points about evangelicals and how they voted in 2018, but one really stood out to me.

The folks at Data for Progress do some solid empirical analysis and helped fund a dataset that they are using to write a number of insightful posts regarding the current state of political affairs, but that one tweet struck me as an angle I had never really considered before and demanded a deeper dive. Are college educated white evangelical women becoming a stronghold for the GOP? Do they make some kind of shift in 2018 that lurched them further to the political right? I must admit, I don’t have any 2018 data yet but I do have a trove of surveys from 1972 to 2016 that can held shed some light on this specific part of the electorate. To get a sense of the landscape, 17.3% of white women with a college degree identify as evangelical, for men it’s slightly higher at 18.2%.

Let’s start by looking at 2016 using the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. The ridgeline plot displays the partisan identification of white, college-educated women. The top right are those who do not affiliate with an evangelical church and the bottom are those who have an evangelical religious affiliation. It’s clear that there are stark differences between the two groups. For instance, just 22.8% of non-evangelical white women with a college degree identify as any type of Democrat. Compare that to non-evangelicals where 57.2% identify as Democrats, it’s clear that an evangelical identity is linked to a dramatic divide. Consider this: two thirds of white, college-educated, evangelical women identify as Republicans, while just 31.8% of non-evangelicals.

So, were there any significant shifts in vote choice between 2016 and 2018? I will compare apples to apples, which is the two party vote during the presidential election of 2016. According to the Data for Progress analysis, 73.4% of college-educated white female evangelicals supported Republicans in 2018, which is likely statistically insignificant from the finding in 2016 that 71.5% of that same group supported Donald Trump. From this view, there is some statistical evidence that white, college-educated, evangelical females may have drifted very slightly to the right between 2016 and 2018, but what about the long term trend?

There are only a few ways to assess this trend over several decades and arguably the best data source is the General Social Survey. The graph above displays the mean party identification for white men and women with a college education by religion . The ribbons indicate the margin of error, which is crucial because some of the early parts of the dataset contain some small sample sizes that induce a lot of uncertainty.

With those caveats aside, note that there is larger trend of evangelicals moving toward the GOP, while non-evangelicals have not shifted much in their party identification. What is occurring here is not the religious and non-religious moving away from each other, but evangelicals becoming more and more conservative over time. The other thing to compare is the move among genders. Statistically, evangelical women are no different than evangelical men, which is also true among non-evangelicals as well in recent years. Note that from the early 1990’s until 2010 or so, non evangelical women were slightly more Democrat than men, but in the last few surveys that gap has become statistically insignificant, as well.

It’s important to take a step back and realize exactly the size and importance of this category. The waffle chart above visualizes just how big these different groups are as part of the electorate. There are 200 boxes in the chart represent the adult population. Three of those boxes are white evangelical women with a college degree, with men with those same attributes making up the same portion of the population. White men with a college degree make up 8.5% of the total population. Here’s a startling fact: just one quarter of the population in the 2016 CCES had a college degree. If that is further restricted to just the white sample, just one in five adults in the United States are a college educated Caucasian. I think a lot of us are guilty of thinking that the world we live in is the world that actually exists, and that’s just not the case here.

So, what do we do with these results? I think there are several takeaways. First, it’s not white, college-educated, evangelical women that are the story, it’s evangelicals in general. Both male and female evangelicals have taken a pretty significant turn toward the GOP in the last twenty years, while non-evangelicals have moved very little. Second, it doesn’t seem like Trump did a whole lot to push evangelicals away in the 2018 midterms. If there was a backlash against him among evangelical women, it is not borne out by this data. Finally, here’s something that needs to be kept in mind: white, college-educated, evangelical women make up about 1.5% of the voting age population. Even if they shifted ten points away from Trump, that will likely have no appreciable difference on most Congressional races in 2018 or beyond because most of those elections were blowouts.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. The syntax for the post can be found in this gist


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