Researcher Juhem Navarro-Rivera of the Public Religion Research Institute has put together a graphic showing how the religiously unaffiliated have voted since 1980:
We have gone from 5% of the electorate (1980) to an estimated 16% now. The overall takeaways are not too 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.
You’re probably thinking, “I already knew that. Tell me something I don’t know.”
Well, how about these factoids?
The only competitive race among unaffiliated voters last occurred in 1980:
In 1980, unaffiliated voters supported President Jimmy Carter over Governor Ronald Reagan by just six percentage points (41% vs. 35%), making this the only competitive race among unaffiliated voters. One reason for the closely divided vote was the significant support (16%) that independent candidate John Anderson, a moderate Republican congressman from Illinois, received. Another possible explanation might be that Carter’s status as a born-again Christian depressed his support among this group.
Also interesting to note:
No Republican candidate has received more than one-third of the unaffiliated vote since 1988.
Unaffiliated Americans are also less likely to vote in presidential elections than other religious groups.
And this is, perhaps, the most interesting dilemma regarding the future of the Democratic party:
For the Democrats, one such challenge lies in reconciling the two largest religious groups in their coalition (black Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated) whose positions, particularly on social issues, are sometimes at odds.
This is where President Obama has a remarkable opportunity. He has already started doing this on issues like gay marriage, but he has a singular ability to move conservative black churches closer to the more progressive side of these issues.
We don’t have to change our values. They do. Considering how closely intertwined the GOP and the Religious Right are, it would benefit the Democrats to cater to those of us who obtain our values outside of church and who think we can do better than whatever the Bible says. The trends are in our favor, and if Democrats are smart about their own future, they should notice how big of a role we play in it.