Pew Survey Shows We Should Look at Race, Not Just Religion in 2016 Electorate

The big takeaway from this recently-released and extensive Pew Research survey of the 2016 electorate is that both Democrats and Republicans are becoming more diverse, but at different rates and in different ways.

For example, as the country has aged over the last twenty years, the GOP has grayed along with it. So have Democrats, but much more modestly. This might seem curious if you’ve seen polling that shows overwhelming strength for Democrats among young people, particularly among Bernie Sanders fans. The twist is that Pew measures registered voters, and young folks tend not to vote, or not as consistently, as the seniors. If they did, Pew’s charts would look much different, and the Republicans would be in a lot more trouble than they are now.

Likewise with race. I will admit to being surprised that the GOP is only 86% white these days, compared to 93% back in 1992. I would have thought the number would stay more or less the same. But again, the society is changing. While it looks like more African-American voters might be willing to support the Republican party, overall, the increased minority representation is more than likely simply a matter of math. There are more minority voters in the US, therefore there are more minority GOP voters. Simple.

But what you came for is the religion data, of course. And here we see the same patterns as in other areas measured by Pew. Both parties are changing, but Democrats appear to be doing so much more quickly. The most striking change is the explosion of the religiously unaffiliated. They’ve almost tripled among registered voters between 1992 and today, from 8% to 21%. But while the unaffiliated only doubled among Republicans (6% to 12%), they again nearly tripled with Democrats (10% to 29%). Again, that would seem to put Democrats on the right side of demographic change. But since the religiously unaffiliated also tend to skew young, it doesn’t help them that much right now.

We could say almost the reverse with white Catholics. Their support for Democrats has just about collapsed—it’s less than half what it was in 1992—leaving Republicans with a substantial lead. However, white Catholics are in substantial decline in the US, which means the Republicans are capturing a larger slice of a smaller pie.

A few other things stand out. One is that despite their reputation for liberalism, white mainline Protestants are quite a bit more likely to be part of the GOP than the Democrats. Part of this is no doubt due to mainline decline. That is, as Mainliners make up less of the population, the remainder has divided unevenly. It’s also worth pointing out that many mainline Protestants are white working-class folks, the same people the GOP cleans up with.

I also wonder, as with the white Catholics, how many mainline Protestants have simply stopped identifying with a party and joined the ranks of “no preference.” Pew unfortunately doesn’t provide that kind of comparison over time. They do break down religious support by generation, which is fascinating. White millennial mainline Protestants are hardly any less likely to support the GOP than their parents, and neither are their Catholic friends. Young evangelicals, on the other hand, are if anything more conservative than their grandparents. That might explain why evangelical support for Republicans has held more-or-less steady over the past 24 years.

Perhaps that uptick in support is a fluke of small sample sizes, but the overall pattern is clear. Regardless of religious commitment, people tend to vote the same way their parents do. If your parents are white, you’re much more likely to vote Republican. If they’re anything other than white, you’re probably going to pull the lever for a Democrat this year.