The ‘Nones’ Vote in History

A couple weeks ago I did a post about the growing political influence of the “nones” — those who do not identify with any particular religion (but not necessarily atheists; only about 25% of the nones identify as atheists). The post was based on a report from the Public Religion Research Institute (which I mistakenly called the Public Religion Research Service) about how the nones voted in this election. Juhem Navarro-Rivera, who works for the PRRI, emailed me to tell me that he’s a longtime Dispatches reader (very cool) and to point me to a piece he wrote about how nones have voted in presidential elections historically. The results aren’t terribly surprising:

An exploration of the unaffiliated vote since 1980s shows two interesting features: first, the Democratic advantage among this group is not a recent phenomenon but stretches back at least as far as 1984, and second, that unaffiliated voters display unusually robust support for third-party and independent candidates.

In recent presidential elections, unaffiliated voters preferred the Democratic Party presidential candidates by a significant margin. As Figure 1 shows, between 1984 and 2000, about 6-in-10 unaffiliated voters preferred the Democratic candidate. Since 2004, the Democratic advantage has increased among these voters has increased from roughly 30 points to about 50 points. Although Obama is currently underperforming his 2008 support among many religious groups, he is poised to match his vote margin among the unaffiliated…

Since 1980, unaffiliated voters have been strong supporters of Democratic presidential candidates. No Republican candidate has received more than one-third of the unaffiliated vote since 1988. As the unaffiliated have grown as a share of voters they have also become an increasingly important part of the religious coalition of Democratic candidates. In 2000, the unaffiliated accounted for 12% of Gore’s coalition. The American Values Survey shows that the unaffiliated are now the largest segment of Obama’s religious base at 23%.

The one bad thing he reports is that a fairly significant number of nones don’t bother to vote at all. I’m certainly not surprised either that nones skew heavily Democratic or that they also support third party candidates at a higher rate than other groups, especially as an atheist myself who usually votes third party (Jill Stein this year). The important thing here is that nones are a growing and important block of voters. We’re gaining a bit of leverage we can use to influence policy. And that’s a very good thing.


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  • Michael Heath

    My book review at Amazon of Greta Christina’s excellent book came from the perspective of the public emergence of the ‘nones’. I think her arguments are illustrative of what many of the atheists and other ‘nones’ think and therefore a great introduction to at least the vocal activist part of this demographic.

    I also think the timing has never been better for this group to become more vocal and begin to get heard. Which is a little odd because after the 2004 election, leading Democrats awkwardly attempted to introduce faith talk into their rhetoric, e.g., Hillary Clinton was one. Fortunately that lame-ass effort, they were really horrible at it, ended within several months and wasn’t even exploited much in the 2006 elections. Which were the elections that led to the Democratic electoral recovery.

  • Sastra

    The one bad thing he reports is that a fairly significant number of nones don’t bother to vote at all.

    Discouraging perhaps but not, I think, surprising. My guess is that a fairly large chunk of those who claim “no specific religious affiliation” also claim “no specific political affiliation” for the same reason: they don’t give a damn. At least, not about stuff like that. They’ve got lives to lead and don’t have time or inclination to concern themselves with Big, High, Important Questions that have never really mattered because nothing you do changes anything or has anything to do with anything anyone really cares about, amirite?

    So don’t discount the apathetic. Not that they will care if you do, of course. Whatever. Knock yourself out, no skin off their backs.

  • jamessweet

    Sastra already beat me to it, but:

    The one bad thing he reports is that a fairly significant number of nones don’t bother to vote at all.

    Yeah, this phenomenon seems to complicate a lot of research into the effect of religion/no-religion. You have people who have rejected religion because they have thought deeply about it and have a strong opinion… then you have people who aren’t particularly religious because they just don’t really give a fuck. And they’re fuck-not-giving often extends to a lot of areas of their life. It’s difficult to separate the two cohorts, and yet intuition tells us that their behavior is going to be very different in all sorts of aspects of life.

  • dingojack

    I wonder, If forced how whould ‘nones’ vote? How big a block are they? Where are they? How would they transform the electorial map if forced to vote?


  • dingojack

    ‘whould,’ the exotic southern hemisphere version of plain old ‘would’


    Dingo (the idjit)

  • Ironically, “None” is also the sixth Office of the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, between Sext and Vespers…

  • slc1

    Re MH @ #1

    Given Secretary Clinton’s dalliance with The Family, I’m not sure that she was pandering.

  • The one bad thing he reports is that a fairly significant number of nones don’t bother to vote at all.

    I wonder how many Christians would vote if their options didn’t include a Christian candidate, as opposed to how it has been in presidential elections since the beginning, where it can be (if you choose) “More Christian” vs. “Less Christian” or “Authentically Christian” vs. “Pretend Christian.”

    I’m by no means saying that atheists should only vote for atheists. Just amused at the thought of how things would be if the situation flipped.

  • eric

    Sastra, James, Gretchen – it probably has more to do with age. Here is a report by the gentleman Ed cites which points out that the nones are significantly younger than the overall US population. Young people do not vote as much (per capita) as older people. If nones are voting at the same rate as other people their same age, then they would naturally vote less than the overall population.

  • … but stretches back at least as far as 1984

    That was about when it became obvious that the Republicans were hell bent on recruiting the worst of religion to their side.

  • I recall back in 2004 that when you looked at the exit polls, it turned out that “nones” plus minority religious voters were roughly equal to the evangelical vote in terms of numbers, and went nearly as strongly for Kerry as evangelicals went for Bush. In other words, by that point Republican courting of evangelicals had already been almost entirely cancelled out by alienation of people who are not religious or belong to a “false” religion.

    This is only going to get worse for Republicans over time. Not only are the “nones” growing rapidly, but as Eric correctly points out, they are on average much younger and over time will replace the currently high turn-out age groups.

  • abb3w

    @4, Dingo:

    How big a block are they? Where are they?

    20% US eligible voters, and rising. Concentrated in the Northeast and West, sparser in the South. They also tend more urban than rural.

    If you’re asking about the ones who don’t vote, that’s a bit trickier; maybe about 5-7%? Those look (using data on 2008) to be just slightly concentrated in the North Central US, but about proportional urban-vs-rural.

    @4, Dingo:

    How would they transform the electorial map if forced to vote?

    Probably make that part of the country a bit bluer, and up the vote counts for Greens, Libertarians, and “Snoopy”.

    @9, eric:

    Sastra, James, Gretchen – it probably has more to do with age.

    It has a LOT to do with age, and young “voters” not bothering to vote. However, even controlling generational cohorts, there’s a major difference between the strongly religious and the unaffiliated — equivalent to about a decade difference in age.

    @11, Area Man:

    This is only going to get worse for Republicans over time.

    Doing some back-of-the-envelope projection, it looks like the Secular Left will match the turnout of the Religious Right circa 2016, and exceed them circa 2020, barring the intervention of a fission of the GOP.

  • bad Jim

    While we’re on the subject of nones, we ought not to neglect Asians. At 26% none they’re not strikingly different than Americans in general (though Chinese are 52% and Japanese 32%, and among the rest the Hindus and Buddhists are rather latitudinarian).

    What stands out for me as a political consideration is this finding: “On the question of whether they think of themselves as “a typical American or very different from a typical American,” U.S. Asians overall are more likely to see themselves as very different (53%) rather than as typical (39%).” So, not necessarily none, but certainly different.