by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
Edit: This post has been updated using voter validated survey weights for the CES 2020 on 1/12/2023
The data is here – these are my official results for how the faithful voted in the 2020 presidential election. This will roll out in three parts – Christians, those of other faith, and the religiously unaffiliated. There’s a lot of ground to cover, so just a few quick notes before we dive in.
First, the data for 2020 is preliminary as of right now. It will take a few more months for the results to be voter verified and maybe reweighted just slightly. So, if you see me produce numbers that are slightly different later in the year, that’s why. And, the overall change between 2016 and 2020 is that there were a lot more viable third party options in 2016. This means that, in several cases, Biden got a bigger share than Clinton, but also Trump did better in his reelection bid. Finally, I can’t assess turnout here. The fact that more people turned out to vote in 2020 than in any prior election is obviously an important component to the story of 2020.
Let’s begin with what lots of people are going to be interested in – white evangelicals. The widely reported figure was that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016. That was based on exit polls. The more accurate number was 77%. Well, in 2020, white evangelicals inched even closer to Trump – up 2.6 percentage points from 2016. Biden did just as well as Clinton did despite all the money spent to try and turn that around.
For non-white evangelicals, the story is just about the same as it was for white evangelicals. Trump got 36% of the vote in 2016, and he did just slightly better at 40% in 2020. Ironically, Biden also received about the same vote share as Clinton did four years earlier. The reason that both candidates could both gain ground is that the third-party options dropped about four points.
Mainline Protestants are one of the most evenly divided religious groups in the United States now. In fact, Donald Trump and Joe Biden split this vote nearly in half in 2020. There’s no evidence that Trump gained any ground at all in his reelection bid, while Biden did make some inroads here, grabbing about 4 percentage points more than Clinton. Again, that was entirely due to lower third-party voting.
For Black Protestants, there’s a much clearer and more compelling story that will need to be digested over the coming months and years. Donald Trump gained about five percentage points with this group in 2020. He also gained about the same amount in 2016 compared to Romney’s performance in 2012. The Republicans nearly doubled their share among this group in the last eight years. And, for all the talk of Biden’s connection with Black voters, he did no better than Clinton did. Don’t forget turnout, though. There’s plenty of evidence of record turnout in heavily black areas of places like metro Atlanta.
White Catholics were a group that I targeted early on to be one to watch in the 2020 election. Some preliminary data that I had access to seemed to indicate that they had defected from Donald Trump in large numbers. Well, that turned out to be a bust. In fact, Trump gained just about three percentage points among this group. And despite Biden’s Catholic bona fides, he gained no ground with White Catholics compared to Hillary Clinton. Republicans have been consistently making gains with this group since 2008.
For non-white Catholics, the story is a return to normal. About 30% of this group voted for McCain and Romney – and that’s essentially the same share that Trump got in 2020. That was an improvement over his 2016 showing, when he only earned 26% of non-white Catholic votes. Again, it looks like Biden may have, at best, held serve with Catholics from 2016. I see no evidence here that his personal faith actually swayed this vote in any way.
What do we have overall among Christians in the 2020 election? Not a lot of good news for Democrats, really. They lost more ground among white evangelicals. They did seem to do slightly better with mainline Protestants, though. But, that was more due to the lack of third parties than actually winning back Trump voters from 2016. The trend among black Protestants should be worrying for Democrats, too. It’s obviously not a huge chunk of the electorate at this stage, but the trend line is toward more black Protestant Republicans in the future. And, Biden didn’t make up any ground with Catholics either.
Overall, the results are kind of what I have come to expect. A lot of stasis from one election to the next with some trends continuing to favor the Republicans among Christians. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this is not the most fertile ground for Democrats to gain back votes by targeting Catholics or Protestants. We will tackle the rest of the religious landscape in future posts running this week.