How Will the Nones Vote in 2020?

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

One of the primary threads in the study of American politics and religion is the ever increasing God Gap. Simply put, the Republican Party is one that caters to people of faith (specifically theologically conservative Christians), while the Democrats find a good portion of their base among people who are less inclined toward religion – especially Christianity, with the exception of Black Protestants, Latino Catholics, Muslims, and others.

Lots of ink is spilled every cycle about white evangelicals addressing questions like: how will they vote in 2020, will they defect from the Republicans over the latest Trump gaffe, etc. I must admit that I have been the provider of some of that ink myself. But, I wanted to turn my analytical lens to the other end of the political spectrum: the religiously unaffiliated.

It seems like some basic questions are in order: how have they historically voted? Are there differences in voting behavior among the three types of none groups (atheists, agnostics, and nothing in particulars)? And, what does the data say about how they might vote in the upcoming presidential election?

The General Social Survey began in October of 1972, but included a question about how respondents voted in the 1968 presidential race. That’s always how the GSS operates,they always ask about presidential voting in the waves after the election. So for the 2004 race, they asked respondents how they voted in the waves conducted in 2006, 2008, and 2010. So, it’s fair to assume that some people revise their vote choice after the fact, but it’s not easy to determine just how much that happens.

There were just a handful of nones in that first wave of the survey (68 of them, to be exact), so I wanted to visualize the uncertainty with 84% confidence intervals.

Nones’ support for Republican vacillated between 30 and 40% in the 1968, 1972, and 1976 races. But then, the nones clearly threw a lot more votes to the Republicans in the 1980’s. In fact, it’s quite possible that the none vote was evenly split between the two parties for the election and re-election of Reagan, as well as George H.W. Bush.

Then, the nones turned hard toward the Democrats and stayed there, reflecting the rise of the Christian Right in the Republican Party. Dole got just one in five none votes in the 1996 campaign, for instance. George W. Bush never won more than a third of the votes among the religiously unaffiliated. But, the GOP has done even worse in the last three campaigns. About 85% of the nones voted for Obama in both his elections, and Hillary Clinton enjoyed nearly the same support (~80%).

But we know that nones are a diverse group. Shockingly, the GSS doesn’t afford a more granular look at each of the three types of nones, but the CCES allows us to see how atheists, agnostics, and “nothing in particulars” voted in 2008, 2012, and 2016.

Clearly, atheists are the bluest of these three groups. They are followed by agnostics, who are slightly more apt to cast a ballot for the Republican candidate, but not by much. Trump did no better among atheists than McCain did in 2008, however Trump did win a slightly larger portion of the agnostic vote in 2016 vs. the prior contests (23.3% vs. 17.8%). In contrast, the nothing in particular bloc does show a larger and clear trend: the Republicans are picking up a bigger share of this vote in each election cycle. McCain won just 27.7% of this group, but Trump did a full ten points better (37.7%).

There are two things to keep in mind about nothing in particulars though. The first is that they are large – about 20% of the population in 2018. But, they also have lower levels of education than all other religious groups, which means voter turnout is a problem for these folks. So, they might be large and trending rightward, but there would need to be a serious GOTV effort to have a bearing on the outcome in November.

Speaking of November, what do the polls look like now in the race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump? Data for Progress has been conducting regular tracking polls since the middle of April. Each wave contains about a thousand respondents, so I can’t break the nones out into subgroups, but there are still insights to be gleaned.

The July tracking data indicates that Biden does have a 24 point lead on Trump, but that is a narrowing for compared to prior waves. He was hovering in the mid-50’s from April to June, but dropped to just 51.4% in the last wave. He still leads Trump by 24 points, but things are moving in the wrong direction if you are pulling for a big Democratic victory in 2020. It’s important to note that between 15-20% of respondents said that they are going to vote for someone else or they aren’t sure yet. It stands to reason that most of them will end up falling back on their party identification, which is Democratic for a huge chunk of this group.

If I had to look into my crystal ball and guess how the nones are actually going to vote in 2020, I think it’s fair to say that at least 80% of atheists will pull the lever for Biden, if not more. That’s right in line with the data from 2016. For agnostics, there was some drifting to the right in 2016, which will be reversed in 2020. I suspect that 80% will go for Biden, matching Obama’s share in 2008 and 2012.

The real wildcards in my mind are the nothing in particulars. They have slid significantly toward the Republicans recently. That must be reversed for Biden to become the president in January. Obama was able to carry the electoral college with two thirds of this subgroup’s vote; Biden needs to shoot for the same level of support.

But, it’s notable that the Biden camp has not hired someone to reach out to the nones. I’m not sure I would have a cogent strategy on how to get them to the polls on election day, but it’s something that campaigns need to take seriously going forward.

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

Featured Image Credit: Los Angeles Times

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