By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
Up to this point, I’ve written a post about how Christians voted in the 2020 presidential election as well as how those from other faith groups cast their ballot in November. The overall impression that many have given is: how could Joe Biden have defeated Donald Trump by such a large margin in the popular vote while losing ground with so many of these groups? That’s a good question. According to data from the CCES, Biden didn’t see any real gains with most Christian groups. For instance, he may have improved by two points among non-white evangelicals, and maybe did three points better among the mainline. But, in many cases that was a result of fewer third party voters instead of drawing shares away from Donald Trump.
In fact, among all faith groups that I’ve examined so far (eleven in all), there’s zero evidence that Trump got a smaller share of the vote in 2020 than he received four years earlier.
So, how is Joe Biden sitting in the White House while Donald Trump is at his resort Mar A Lago? In part, the answer relies on the last set of religious groups to be examined: the religiously unaffiliated. Remember, this group now constitutes about one third of the American public. In the 2020 CCES data, around 6% of Americans were atheists, another 5% are agnostic, and 22.5% checked the “nothing in particular” box.
Let’s start with atheists. They are easily the most liberal religious tradition in the United States today. And, recent data indicates that they see themselves as being further to the left than the Democratic party. The story among atheists is even more of a leftward tilt. About 82% of them backed Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Hillary Clinton slipped a bit with atheists in 2016, losing about four points from Obama’s 2012 total. But, Trump didn’t reap the benefits of her loss – it all went to third parties. However, 2020 saw third party voters recede and Biden seeing huge gains. He got 85% of the vote – higher than Obama ever achieved while Trump lost a bit of support, down nearly three percentage points.
I always think of agnostics as a slightly less liberal version of atheists. They are still liberal and proudly identify that way, but they aren’t quite as far to the left as their atheist counterparts. That shows up at the ballot box, as well. The same general trend we saw in the prior graph also appears here. Obama did very well with agnostics in 2008 and 2012, although he did lose about three percentage points in his reelection bid. Clinton really fell off, though. She lost over eight percent from Obama’s 2012 total and Trump did nearly four points better than Romney did. However, the agnostic vote in 2020 reverted almost exactly to the election of 2012. Biden got 78% and Trump was at 18%.
Now we arrive at what I believe to be maybe the key religious story of the 2020 election – the nothing in particular vote. Recall that there are nearly four times as many nothing in particulars as atheists or agnostics. Nearly a quarter of all adults in this country fall in this category. Thus, their vote is incredibly consequential.
Obama got nearly 71% of this group in 2008, but lost a bit of ground in reelection, only getting 65% of the vote. Hillary Clinton did even worse – only earning 56% of the nothing in particular vote. Or put more succinctly – the Democrats lost nearly fifteen points among nothing in particulars between 2008 and 2016. The Republicans picked up nearly nine points during this time period. However, Biden managed to reverse this trend and the 2020 vote looks very similar to the Obama-Romney matchup in 2012. Biden got 64% and Trump got 34%. That represents millions of votes all over the country.
Here’s what this all comes down to for me when thinking about the none vote in 2020: third parties. If I restrict the sample to atheists, agnostics, and nothing in particulars who identify as political independents, the picture comes into clear focus. Hillary Clinton did terribly with independent nones. She only got 32% of the vote, while Trump got 46% and the third party options garnered an eye-popping 23%. Obama won this group by comfortable margins in both 2008 and 2012 and third parties were a non-story. Biden managed to get back to the 2012 coalition that kept a Democrat in the White House. He took 48% of independents, which was sixteen points better than Clinton did. Not only did he convince all those 2016 third party voters to go blue in 2020, he also chipped into Trump’s support among independent nones.
Taken together, it looks like the Republicans largely held serve with Christians in 2020, gained some ground with smaller religious groups (Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims), but then lost significant support among all types of nones, but especially acute with the nothing in particular group. If anything, it’s another piece of evidence that the parties are sorting out even more cleanly now. Religious voters are predominantly Republican, secular voters vote for Democrats. What works in the favor of the Democrats is that the nones are growing. However, Republican pickups among minority religious groups may be something to build on for the future.