How Have the ‘Nones’ Voted Over the Past 30 Years?

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.

One downside:

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.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • M Vanroy

    No love for Gary Johnson?

  • Ashley

    I wonder how much of the drop in our likelihood to vote is due to the fact that Nones skew young, a group that overall is less likely to vote.

  • Guest

    It is best that the young not to vote until they have thought long and hard than to be stuck with the changes they have made in their youthful indiscretion. By the time they are more mature and gather more experience in the ways of the world, they may find that the society they have helped to changed is not the one they want to live in. Who do you think are the ‘useful idoits’ of the those who want to change societies to their own advantage and ideas.

    It is not that older people will not be influenced but what they have learnt from experience cannot be fully covered by books which have inbuilt bias of the authors. Decisions made today will often prove short-sighted when looking back. Parents often try to appear strong by not sharing their past mistakes with their children. Most often it is due to embarrassment.

  • TCC

    Or, you know, we could improve education rather than telling young adults to wait on voting. (That’s even granting that young adults are less capable of making good decisions with their vote, which I don’t think is necessarily true.)

  • MyDesign

     None and a young voter. Voted Stewart Alexander.

  • MyDesign

     Oops. Was support to be a reply to Ashley.

  • MichaelD

    As a young voter I find it hard to think we can do any worse.

  • MyDesign

    I think their point was that young people don’t know what they want as they have not lived in the real world and don’t have experience.

    Education would be extremely pro-status quo. Self-exploration is much better in my opinion and I am currently engaged in (although I hope I am always trying to improve my knowledge). I have a some ideas about what I want. 

    Also, knowing what you want is not necessarily enough. Sometimes you have to know what is practical. For example, I’m currently reading some writings of anarchism. If I decide that an anarchist society is what I want, I would not just stop voting and supporting candidates that are better than what we currently have. Unless we got to the point where a huge portion of the population did not recognize the legitimacy of the government, not voting will have little effect as it would just be mixed in with the half of the population who do not vote because they do not have time or do not care enough. So voting for someone who may not support anarchy but does not attack unions would be beneficial in the move towards anarchy.

  • Willy Occam

    I teach at a university and have worked with young people for decades.  Frankly, I have more faith in idealistic young voters who can think for themselves than those who unquestioningly follow the ideologies of their parents.  That’s how our society progresses, often to the dismay of the old timers who increasingly and unrealistically long for “the good old days.”

  • MyDesign

     When people say the brain stops developing at 25 so only people who are 25+ should vote, I think to myself “shouldn’t that mean people over 25 should no longer be allowed to vote?”

    Of course they frame it as “the brain does not fully developed until 25″.

  • Dan


    I have a feeling that if young people were mostly voting for your candidate you would quickly change your opinion on the young voting …

    Young people overwhelmingly carry the burden of fighting in wars, so it seems pretty perverse for you to think it best to discourage them from voting for the leaders that can send them to war. (Not to mention issues like healthcare access, poverty, contraception, gay rights, civil liberties, pre-school programs, freedom of speech, and college funding policy which also directly affect the young).

  • lefty

    unconvincing. age does not correspond to wisdom. It is no more rare to meet wiser 25 year olds than 60 years olds.

  • lefty

    libertarian free will doesn’t do it for me

  • Brian Westley

    Even looking at the original story, the sizes of the circles are unexplained.  I’ll guess that the size of the circle indicates how large the unaffiliated voting block is for each candidate, so even though Nader only got 7% of the unaffiliated vote, it was a pretty large percentage of all the votes he received.  But I’d rather not have to guess.

  • MyDesign

    Probably. Nader only got 2.74% of the total votes in 2000.
    Perot got 18.91% or the vote in 1992, so the size of that circle would be slightly bigger than that of the general population.

    If that is what the size represents, this suggests 3rd parties are good at getting the none vote and democrats have gotten better at it.

  • Guest

    Not all young are foolish, only many are. There are still many who are very close to their parents and grandparents who have counsel of the older and wiser. Unfortunately with the break-up of the family and the ‘me’ society, many do not and are easily influenced by so called ideas of the day which is so often not so new. Of course the young have a right to vote since they have been given such right but they also have to live with the consequences. Someone 18 will most likely to think differently when he is 38. And in today’s world many will live till they are 90. Who do you think have their interest at heartache. People like you or their family?

  • Guest

    Brain development actually stops at 18 but experiences get accumulated. But of course people who want to influence the young will encourage the young to do their bidding. During my parents time, many of their lecturers were Communist leaning. The so called intellectuals can aggressively forward their ideas but who bears the cost? That is idealism of some enforced on others isn’t it? The people who propose that system were the last people to share what they had. Anyway the old don’t have that many years to live so who will suffer longer when those still unable to earn a living make the decision for everyone else.Of course the older ones who have enough can always move their money to growth areas.

  • MyDesign

    The frontal lobe keeps developing until about 25…

  • Guest

    Very ,very minimal if what I read is not outdated.

  • julie

    I find this very funny because in my family, the majority of my older relatives vote completely on the social issues and understand nothing about the economy or politics. They completely support the republican party without understanding any of the other issues they stand for. They have no desire to change their long-held beliefs and will hold onto them even when all evidence points to them being wrong.
    On the other hand, I follow politics. When I don’t understand an issue, I try to learn more about it instead of just agreeing with the side I support. I take classes that will give me more information about the current issues.
    But what do I know, I’m only 20. I’m just a useful idiot going about my youthful indiscretion. It’s not like I put any thought into this.

  • Willy Occam

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Dan.  Our Guest sounds like somebody who is probably all for instilling “good Christian values” and the merits of unfettered free-market capitalism in our youth; but if some authority figure tries to teach a young person something in opposition of that view (i.e., those those “so-called intellectuals” with “Communist leanings” from the 1950s… it’s amazing how red-baiting still resonates for some people in 2012), then that’s considered “brain-washing.”

    It may be true that young people are more susceptible to influence, but that’s partly how they figure things out for themselves.  I was raised in a very Republican household, and was indoctrinated to believe that all Republicans were great and all Democrats were evil (from my more cynical middle-aged perspective, it appears to me now that both parties—and most politicians—pretty much suck); as a result, I cast my vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 (six weeks after my 18th birthday), and *again* in 1984.  So yes, in hindsight, I guess I do have to live with my youthful naivete and unquestioning allegiance to my parents ideologies, even though I eventually grew up to think for myself. 

  • amycas

     “There are still many who are very close to their parents and grandparents who have counsel of the older and wiser.”

    So you admit it. If young people agree with you or their parents or their grandparents, then you support their vote, but if they don’t agree with you than they’re unwise and not experienced enough to vote. I’m telling you right now that I know A LOT of older people who are just as progressive and liberal (if not more so) than I am.

  • abb3w

    That’s part, but not all. Voter turnout difference for old-vs-(very)young is something like 30%, but strongly-vs-non religious is something roughly around 15%.

  • abb3w

    Young people will have to live with the consequences of acceptance of gay marriage, just like the previous generation has had to live with the consequences of legalizing miscegenation.

  • abb3w

    Using the GSS sample, Nader got circa 2% overall, but 7% in the nones, making up 40% of his overall vote share.

    Perot got circa 15% overall, but 20% in the nones; still, they were only 13% of his overall vote share.

    So… yeah. Circle size looks relative to fraction of overall vote share.

  • Antinomian

    Don’t forget that you’re  also just a silly female, subject to hysteria and the vapors.

  • julie

    Silly me. My silly female head forgot that I was female.

  • MyDesign

    My numbers were based on the census data that the FEC has records of:

  • Parth Choksi

     I can’t help but wonder how many older people will vote against:
    equal marriage, saving the environment, raising retirement age and other issues. In fact, I really can’t help but wonder how out of date some older mentalities might be.

    Older people are going to be dead by the time their action/votes have changed (or left the same) society. They don’t have to live with the consequences of their choices. Young people do. I forgot which comedian it was, but someone made an entertaining point that people over the age of 70 should not be able to vote on global warming, they’ll be long dead if shit ever hits the fan.

    That’s not to say I believe older people shouldn’t vote. But all in all, if you’re going to make the case to exclude anyone based on age, it really should be older people.

  • MyDesign

     We shouldn’t raise the age to start receiving social security. We should lower it to 20.

  • Parth Choksi

    ? I think you missed my point. I’m all up for improving social welfare across the board (medicare for all). But the fact is that as it currently stands, Social Security already pays out more than it takes in taxes. Not only that, when Social Security was established, the average life expectancy (62) was shorter than the retirement age (65). Now life expectancy is well into the late 70s. People in their sixties also much more healthier, so I don’t understand why we can’t raise the retirement age. I personally wouldn’t mind working longer as it means I need a smaller retirement fund.

  • Cody

     I want to get rid of TANF, food stamps, and children tax exemptions and have social security for all adults. ~20k/year and increase it faster than the rate of inflation. By 2040 it should be about 100k (as opposed to ~50k* if based only on inflation). And about 240k by 2070 (as opposed to about $180k* if based on inflation alone).

    Your talk of life expectancy is misleading as the biggest change is only in infant mortality. The left expectancy has only increase maybe a few years when you ignore that. Which means they work the same % of their life.

    Plus it doesn’t really matter as productivity has doubled since then. Which means even if your life expectancy numbers were actually related to % of life where one gets the benefits, we could have still almost halved the amount of time people have to work in that time. So social security benefits would have to start in someone’s 40s to be equivalent (~20 years of working instead of ~40).

    *based on inflation rates through parts of the 20th century.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The problem is that the nones are largely selfish, amoral people who are nones because they don’t like being told when they are wrong.

    This way yields more fiscal & sexual sin, more sociopathy- and in the long run, more hurt people hurting other people.

  • smrnda

     I think the problem is the opposite – young people are open to new ideas, and old people tend to be less much so, and are probably more likely to be stuck with the prejudices they acquired while young. Plus, it’s pretty obvious the elderly voting block pretty much votes purely out of self-interest. Plenty of old folks are slamming ‘government spending’ while young workers pay taxes to support their social security and medicaid.

    Plus, if young people vote badly and don’t like the results, then they can change their votes in the next election. The other thing is, if I look at how young people have typically though as opposed to the older generation, I’d be much happier if more young people voted.

  • smrnda

     I’ve been getting more and more left-leaning as I get older and I realize that my parents and grandparents were so totally full of excrement. My parents and grandparents were not  wiser than me – they were just full out outmoded prejudices and a lack of imagination. Since I had come from a privileged family which had insulated itself from working people, my parents and grandparents believe in the good old ‘free market’ since they didn’t see that, in the end, it’s just a system where people born into enough privilege will automatically win, and those born without will have far fewer opportunities.

    If anyone in my family were useful idiots, it was my parents and grandparents.

    But come on guest, older and “wiser?” You mean more likely to go against science and believe in religion, more racist? More sexist? More anti-any-sort of difference? You’ve got to be kidding me.

  • smrnda

     I’m a none.

    I am totally sexually inactive. I do, however, oppose judging people as ‘immoral’ for acts that do not produce a victim. Unless you can show me who is wrong by an act, quit calling it ‘bad’ and no, having a hissy fit isn’t real harm.

    I am all for raising taxes on myself and other affluent people since I sure don’t deserve to have a great life while most workers have a shittier time than me. I notice that Christians tend to be uncritical supporters of capitalism, mostly since they like to imagine that the fact that white people stole a continent can be turned into some glorious narrative of ‘manifest destiny.’

    Also, I’m a life-long none, and I notice that when I do volunteer work, I rarely encounter Christians. They have their *own programs* which tend to focus less on serving people’s needs and more on getting a captive audience.

    Religion teaches people that hissy fits over consensual sexual acts are a big deal, and the idea that a tiny minority of people control access to resources necessary to human survival is a non-issue. Religion is just a tool for creating the wrong priorities in people.

  • Arthur Byrne

    More accurate on the overall, though not allowing breakdown on the religious makeup. The difference indicates the uncertainty to the sample-based numbers I gave.