Goodbye, God Gap: Trump and Clinton Have Churchgoers Unusually Split

Plus here's what we know about evangelical Democrats.
Goodbye, God Gap: Trump and Clinton Have Churchgoers Unusually Split
Image: Gage Skidmore / Flickr | ebyabe / Flickr

Donald Trump seems to be breaking yet another political tradition this election: the “God gap.”

In previous US elections, polls consistently showed that a person’s level of religiosity—how important their faith is to them and how often they attend church—was one of the biggest predictors in how they would vote. The more religious an American was, the more likely he or she was to vote Republican; the less religious, the more likely to vote Democrat.

But that correlation appears to be weakening, enough that some are asking whether this year’s unusual matchup between Trump and Hillary Clinton will be the end of what political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell termed the God gap.

Trump only leads Clinton by four percentage points among regular churchgoers (49% vs. 45%), a “notable shift” according to the Pew Research Center. By comparison, Mitt Romney’s 15-point margin over Barack Obama in 2012 (55% vs. 40%) was much more indicative of the usual spread between Republican and Democrat candidates among weekly worshipers.

Similarly, George Washington University found that the difference between the percentage of weekly churchgoers voting Republican vs. Democrat spanned 40 points in 2012; during the 2016 primaries, there was less than 15 percentage points between the two, according to Religion News Service blogger Mark Silk’s analysis of the survey data.

This year’s demographic shifts are drastic enough that, for the first time in years, gender outweighs faith in determining how someone might vote, wrote Silk. (In June, Pew found that women who worship weekly are 15 percentage points more likely to favor Clinton (51%) than men who worship weekly (36%).)

The main factor: churchgoing Catholics. They slightly favored the GOP during the last presidential election, but with Trump as the Republican nominee, their Democratic support has risen 22 percentage points, reportsFiveThirtyEight (based on Pew’s data).

Pew found that the move is more attributable to Trump than Clinton, (and not in a good way for Trump): the number of churchgoing Catholics voting mainly against Trump nearly matches the number voting in support of Clinton. For the Obama-Romney matchup, Catholic churchgoers overwhelmingly were motivated by support for the Democratic candidate.

Meanwhile, white evangelicals voting Democrat this year are dramatically doing so in response to Trump’s candidacy. “The share of weekly churchgoing evangelicals who support the Democratic nominee has remained nearly flat from June 2012 to June 2016, but their reasons have changed,” writes FiveThirtyEight’s Leah Libresco. “Two-thirds of churchgoing evangelical Obama supporters described their vote as ‘for Obama’ rather than ‘against Romney,’ but the proportions are exactly flipped for Clinton.”

However, evangelicals who rarely go to church have moved significantly more into the GOP camp: from a 29 percentage point margin in 2012 to a 57 percentage point margin in 2016 (see Pew chart above).

A recent Pew survey found that 56 percent of Catholic registered voters and 89 percent of black Protestant registered voters (two-thirds of whom are evangelicals, according to Pew) side with Clinton in the upcoming election. For white evangelicals, 78 percent back Trump. (Most are motivated by distaste for Clinton rather than genuine support for Trump.)

In interactive charts on candidate switching among Republicans and among Democrats, Pew found:

  • 10 percent of voters who supported Ted Cruz in the GOP primary now support Clinton in the general election. (3% will abstain.)
  • 20 percent of voters who supported John Kasich in the GOP primary now support Clinton in the general election. (2% will abstain.)
  • 15 percent of voters who were undecided in the GOP primary now support Clinton in the general election. (17% will abstain.)
  • 9 percent of voters who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary now support Trump in the general election. (1% will abstain.)
  • 18 percent of voters who were undecided in the Democratic primary now support Trump in the general election. (9% will abstain.)

Meanwhile, here’s what we know about evangelical Democrats, according to Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey. (The unusually large survey of Americans, conducted in 2007 and again in 2014, categorizes religious groups by denomination instead of by self-identification.)

In 2014, 28 percent of evangelicals identified as Democrats. This was a decline from 34 percent in 2007:

About one-third of evangelical Democrats describe themselves as “conservative”:

More than half of evangelical Democrats are white:

Most evangelical Democrats are women—almost two-thirds, in fact:

Overall, a similar share of evangelicals across age groups identify as Democrats (about 30%):

Almost half of evangelical Democrats believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases (46%):

Evangelical Democrats are slightly less likely to have a college degree than evangelical Republicans (18% vs. 25%):

Evangelical Democrats are more likely to have a lower income than evangelical Republicans:

Evangelical Democrats are less likely to attend church weekly than evangelical Republicans:

Evangelical Democrats are slightly less likely to feel “spiritual peace and wellbeing” weekly as evangelical Republicans (70% vs. 77%):

Evangelical Democrats are slightly more likely to believe in heaven than evangelical Republicans (though the difference falls within the margin of error):

However, evangelicals remain one of the most Republican religious groups in America overall:

Pew offers many more interactive charts on evangelical views based on party affiliation.

CT’s coverage of the 2016 election includes how most white evangelicals are voting Trump but not for Trump, as well as how pro-life Democrats are struggling with Clinton’s challenge to the abortion status quo.

[Photos of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton courtesy of Gage Skidmore – Flickr]

[Photo of church courtesy of ebyabe – Flickr]

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