by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
The biggest story in religion and American politics in recent years has been evangelicals’ support for Republican Donald Trump.
Analysts have tried to figure out why the connection between this faith group and the GOP has grown stronger lately. Some rightly note that their support for Trump has been overstated or too broadly generalized; US evangelicals are not a monolith, particularly when broken down by age, race, and media consumption.
However, there may be another factor that divides evangelicals: geography.
Does an evangelical in New England have the same political leanings as one in the Bible Belt? Turns out, where evangelical voters live can be almost as important as what they believe.
Across the country, evangelicals turned out for Trump in the 2016 election. As the map indicates far more states skew dark red than bright blue; a majority of evangelicals cast their vote for Trump in all but four states: Vermont, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey. In nine states, Trump won the evangelical vote by over 80 percent.
Overall, the map reflects broad patterns in how Americans vote in the general election: Republicans do well in the Deep South and the Great Plains, while Democrats garner more votes in New England and the West Coast. The Midwest however, offers a somewhat mixed bag. There’s plenty of variation in that region, were 60 percent of Illinois evangelicals voted for Trump, compared to 65 percent in Iowa, and 77 percent in Indiana.
Some religious traditions stick to the same partisan voting patterns no matter the state. Black Protestants and Jews, for example, don’t show much regional variation, and Catholics tend to have similar partisan leanings across the country. Here’s where evangelicals are an exception: Their political affiliation differs state-by-state.
Last year, LifeWay Research confirmed a stereotype many already assume about evangelicals; when surveying Americans with evangelical beliefs, they found about half live in the South and about two-thirds lean Republican. But there’s a lot more variation to the evangelical vote than Southern Republicans.
Evangelicals’ political identities as Democrats, Independents, or Republicans—as indicated by the red ridges in each of the state graphs—look different in Maryland than Oklahoma, for instance. In Oklahoma, they are pinned to the right (strong Republicans), while in Maryland the plurality are Democrats. States like Michigan have a fairly flat distribution across the political spectrum indicating a lot of heterogeneity and even in other Midwestern states like Illinois there are significant numbers of Democrats among evangelicals. For a much larger version of this ridgeline plot click here.
Those regional differences become more striking when examined up close. The two most populous states in the nation, California and New York display a stunning amount of political polarization among evangelicals. In both states over half the sample of evangelicals either consider themselves a “Strong Democrat” or “Strong Republican.” In the case of California, this polarization is best illustrated by the fact that just one in five evangelicals (22%) chose one of the three middle options of the scale. On the other hand, New York evangelicals were twice as likely to label themselves as “Independent” than their California counterparts.
The bottom row visualizes states that are emblematic of the Midwest, such as the swing state of Ohio, and the Bible Belt, such as South Carolina.
South Carolina had the highest percentage of evangelicals who labeled themselves as “Strong Republicans,” but when the two Republican categories (“Republican” and “Strong Republican”) are added together, Ohio evangelicals identify with the GOP nearly as much as those in South Carolina. In both states, just 3 in 10 evangelicals describe themselves as a Democrat, compared to 44 percent in New York and 42 percent in California.
The scatterplot below displays the mean party identification of evangelicals on the x-axis, and the total vote share that Donald Trump received on the y-axis. There is a clearly positive relationship between the two variables – states with evangelicals who identify with the GOP also happen to be solidly red states, by and large. In fact for every step up on the party ID scale among evangelicals, Trump’s vote share went up by over 11%. One of the biggest outliers in Oregon. According to the trend line, the Republican identification of evangelicals in the state should have resulted in a 55% vote share for Trump, however the state was solidly in the Clinton camp with the GOP candidate only being able to muster 40% of the vote.
One oft-repeated phrase among those who study politics and policy is, “All politics is local.” That seems to be the case here. While evangelicals all adhere to a similar set of religious doctrines, the way those doctrines are translated into the political arena are highly dependent on a number of variables. Clearly geography is one of those factors.
When one considers the reality that a New York evangelical is three times more likely to identify as a Strong Democrat than an evangelical from South Carolina, it becomes apparent that evangelicals do not all see the political world through the same lens.