We know Republicans always pander to white evangelical voters. Why wouldn’t they? Those evangelicals are a sizable and reliable voting bloc in elections. In 2016, roughly 80% voted for Donald Trump and that was despite all the scandals up to that point.
On the flip side, only about 70% of Americans without a religious affiliates voted for Hillary Clinton. But that still means we’re a sizable, reliable voting bloc for Democrats. So why won’t Democrats pander to us? Or, more strategically, why won’t Democrats make a bigger deal about issues that matter to non-religious Americans when it could generate even more support among us?
It’s a question that we’ve been asking for more than a decade, especially since the “Nones” began growing rapidly.
One theory that’s been floated around is that Nones aren’t single-issue voters. We’re not asking for a president to advocate atheism for us. We don’t even care, as a whole, about church/state separation as much as conservative Christians care about repealing abortion rights and hurting LGBTQ people. (In a sense, it’s easier to pander to conservatives because Republicans know exactly what they want to hear.)
But it all goes back to one question: Are Nones as reliably Democratic as conservative Christians are Republican?
Considering both groups are now about 23% of the population, it would be worthwhile looking at how strong of a voting bloc both groups are. And that’s what Professor Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University just did.
In a really neat article that is catnip for statistics nerds, he used information from the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, he worked out how various religious groups (even smaller ones) would vote. He figured out if they were politically left or right of center, and then he calculated how much deviation there was. The more deviation, the less reliable a group is for any political party.
Here’s one example:
In that picture, you can see that White Evangelicals are mostly to the right (shocking!) with a standard deviation that’s smaller than the overall average of 2.19. That means they’re more reliably Republican.
What would it look like for a group that’s reliably Democratic? Check out Black Protestants:
They are really left of center, and their standard deviation is even smaller. Black Protestants are more reliably Democratic than white evangelicals are Republican. (Case in point: Alabama Sen. Doug Jones.)
Okay. What about atheists?
And finally, what about Nones in general?
Slightly to the left with a standard deviation that is almost the same as white evangelicals. That says a lot more about the uselessness of that category than anything about non-religious Americans as a whole.
… note that atheists are the second most Democratic leaning group of the fifteen in the sample, only bested by black Protestants. Agnostics rank fourth from the left, just after Muslims. However, note the “nothing in particular” group, which is nearly 20% of all respondents and much further to the right. In fact, this group is just slightly to the left of the mean partisanship score for the entire sample. When the nones are classified, oftentimes these groups are added together which pulls the mean partisanship further to the right and therefore misrepresents the true political outlook of atheists and agnostics.
In other words, explicitly non-religious Americans — a quickly growing slice of the population — are very much in line with the Democratic agenda. We are not as heterogeneous in our thoughts as common wisdom might suggest.
Burge summarizes the data:
… what does all of this mean? Well, it gives absolutely no ammunition to the argument that the nones are too politically diverse to actually coordinate an effective voice to politicians and candidates. In fact, the nones as a group are more politically unified than many of the largest religious traditions in the United States (evangelicals and Catholics).
He’s right. There’s an opening for Democrats to talk about issues that matter to us if they want the more apathetic among us to cast a vote in their favor.
What are those issues?
Well… that’s where it gets complicated. It’s hard to think of any issue that matters to the broader group of Nones as much as social (wedge) issues matter to conservative Christians. But there are a few places they could start: church/state separation, science education, sex education, any education, climate change, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, data-driven policies. All of those things would find broad support among non-religious Americans — and all are actively under threat when the GOP is in power.
Most Democratic candidates for president are pushing for all of these things, which is a good start. It would also help to mention the contributions of non-religious Americans in speeches instead of just as a mere afterthought in a list of faiths (“… and non-believers, too”).
If there’s one thing we learned in 2016 and really took advantage of in 2018, it’s the importance of getting your base out to vote. That matters far more — and is more strategic — than trying to win over people who will likely never vote for you.
What Burge shows us is that non-religious Americans — especially those of us who don’t believe in supernatural myths — are already on the side of most Democrats. It’s up to the candidates to convince us they’re worth voting for.