The ‘Nones’ Helped Obama Win the Election

This isn’t news for any of us, but the media is finally taking notice of the fact that the “Nones” — those who are non-religious or don’t use any particular religious label — were as solid a voting bloc for President Obama as evangelical Christians have been for Republican candidates in the past:

“This really is a striking development in American politics,” says Gregory Smith of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “There’s no question that the religiously unaffiliated are a very important, politically consequential group.”

“It was hard to think this was just Iowa,” [Iowa-based pollster J Ann] Selzer said. “And it wasn’t. One of the reasons Barack Obama won was that he had the ‘no religion’ vote by a huge margin.”

Nationally, Obama lost the Protestant vote by 15 points, won the Catholic vote by 2 points, and captured 70 percent of the “nones.”

One of the big questions I have now is: Will Democrats try to reach out to the religiously unaffiliated to get an even larger share of votes — or risk us not voting at all due to apathy? So far, they’ve just taken our votes for granted because it’s not like we had another viable candidate to vote for… and they probably thought that publicly reaching out to us would have alienated many religious voters in the process. Maybe there’s some truth to that. But if the Nones’ votes matter as much as the trends suggest, it may not matter if a few bigots are offended by the outreach to non-religious people.

The other big question is: Why is this happening? We can talk about the Democratic Party platform and their commitment (at least in theory) to social justice issues. But no conversation about the reasons for this trend is complete with talking about how the Christian Right has imploded over the years. By basically equating being a Christian with being a Republican, many on the Religious Right have turned off younger Christians, non-Christian Republicans, and Nones. It doesn’t help that they’ve doubled-down on the wrong side of the biggest social issues of our day. The Millennial generation, by and large, has no problem with marriage equality, women’s rights, etc. — which makes it very hard to defend being a Republican or a Christian. It’s just easier to say you’re not one of them.

That’s why we’re seeing more people who believe in God shed any sort of religious label — they’re Nones, too — and why more people are becoming non-religious as a whole.

All of this bodes well for the Democrats (and Independents). But unless they can show us why we should vote for them instead of just not voting for the Republican candidate, they’re wasting a golden opportunity.

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.

  • Jinx

    I personally do not believe that the Democratic party will ever make any attempt to embrace those of us who are nonreligious.

    While the Democrats are certainly better than the Republicans on social issues and separation of church and state, the Democrats would never attempt outreach to those of us who do not believe.

    Let’s consider why:

    1. There are entire regions of the country (the South and the Midwest) that are highly religious. Reaching out to “nones” would not be a smart political move for politicians wishing to win Congressional seats in these areas.

    2. It is extremely difficult to get an atheist/agnostic elected to a major public office here in the US. Until we actually have some representation on the Hill, our community will not be taken seriously.

    3. Not all “nones” are atheists/nontheists. Some still believe in God or pray occasionally despite their lack of identification with a particular religion. If the “nones” are too diverse about their spiritual beliefs or too disorganized, it could be difficult to perform any type of outreach to the group as a whole.

    4. There are tons of people in the Democratic party who might be opposed to atheist outreach out of pragmatism/political interest, not necessarily “bigotry.” For the three reasons listed above, it is easy to see why skeptic outreach may not work properly. Finally, liberal doesn’t necessarily mean godless-friendly; this is very important to remember. One of my favorite progressive communities on the web is occasionally plagued by tensions between the religious and nonreligious members of the site.

    • RobMcCune

      Number 4 especially, as a rule democrats won’t take strong stands on issues that can be easily demagogued by republicans, particularly if it led to their defeat in the past.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      “Not ever” neglects how obvious the demographic shift is becoming.

      Yes, the religious right still has more election outcome impact than the unaffiliated left. However, CNN’s exit poll data for the 2012 presidential election shows the religiously unaffiliated being about 80% of the magnitude of impact (opposite direction) of protestant weekly churchgoers.

      There are regional differences in the trends, yes. However, they may be less than you’d think. Yes, New England and the Pacific Coast have the largest rise in the Nones; and yes, the Gulf states of region 6 and 7 the slowest. However, the North Central regions are currently about where New England was a decade ago, and even the southern Atlantic states of region 5 are shifting markedly. (You might have noticed that North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia were considered “in play” in the presidential election. The rising levels of the Nones was almost certainly one factor in that.)

      The numbers of unaffiliated are rapidly growing, while the evangelicals are starting to shrink. Given that the current trend will have the current 20% going to 25% by the 2016 election, we’re on the verge of the tipping point when pandering the other way becomes not just viable, but vital. Additionally, the Nones also have a relatively low turn-out fraction at present, which suggests potential for even greater impact if deliberately rallied. The diversity of beliefs does present a challenge, but no more so than the diversity of evangelicals. A platform merely seeking to preventing people from imposing the constraints of their religion into the lives of others might be a simple common element to start with.

      The factors you give appear to support “maybe not this decade”, at best.

  • de

    Somewhat off topic, but I have seen arguments from Republicans that they shouldn’t worry about the nones, because these people will go back to church eventually.

    • Jinx

      That’s a pretty silly argument…….

      Some of the “nones” *do* go to church: even still, they go on such an infrequent basis that they cannot be considered “churchgoers.” Many “nones” will go to church during the holidays or during family gatherings; very few maintain regular church attendance.

      Also, the Republicans are still losing amongst voters who do go to church; despite the activist antics of Catholic bishops and deacons, the Republican party lost the Catholic vote during the election of 2012.

      It seems as if the Republican party has problems bigger than religion that are keeping them from winning elections. Most gen-Xers and Millenials are not in line with the party on social issues; a sizable percentage (enough to be considered a majority) of single women voted Democrat in 2012; finally, the party has managed to anger gays, Latinos, blacks, and city-dwellers *so* much that the Democratic party wins each of these groups by a landslide.

    • C Peterson

      I’m pretty sure that the number of non-religious people who become religious is only a fraction of the number of religious people who become less so. It is easier for an irrational thinker to become rational than the other way around.

      Becoming non-religious is a bit of a trapdoor.

      • Jinx

        According to the Pew Research Center, well over 80% (the exact number is 88%) of nones say that they are not searching for a particular religion. Most nones do not view organized religion in a positive way (even still, “nones” as a whole are fine with religious belief in society.)

        Just as a warning: nones are just as prone to irrational thinking as the rest of the (religious) population. A good portion of them claim that they feel “oneness with the earth,” “believe in astrology/horoscopes,” or have “consulted a psychic.” While there are some atheists/agnostics amongst the “nones,” many still claim to believe in God.

        “nones”= “atheists” is not necessarily a correct equation………

        • Jinx

          (Typo: I meant “percentage,” not number……..)

        • C Peterson

          I disagree with your assessment that nones are as prone to irrational thinking as the population as a whole. They are, implicitly, at least somewhat more rational than the greater population. So while anybody can think irrationally, the probability of them doing so varies.

        • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

          Two additional notes from the Pew research:
          1) The claim by Republicans is usually presented as a prediction based on prior trends. However, Pew’s data indicates there is no such historical tendency for the number of “nones” in generational cohorts to significantly decrease over time as they age.
          2) While not all nones are atheists, within the Nones the fraction of Atheists and Agnositics is rising, while the fraction of Nothing In Particular “NIPpers” is falling relative to the Nones (while still rising in terms of the fraction of total US population).

      • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt Eggler

        This is true for those who came to being”nones” through reason, but most of the nones of my acquaintance are fairly deeply involved in fuzzy, supernatural beliefs and thinking. While I strongly doubt they will become fundamentalists, they may wind up joining or forming churches with fuzzy theologies similar to their own.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        The unaffiliated have one of the lowest intergenerational religious retention rates out there. Despite this, however, at present it’s very roughly a 6:1 ratio of religious-who-deconvert to nones-who-convert; it may be increasing.

    • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt Eggler

      I’ve heard Republican pundits say the same thing. I am sure may of them will but very few will go back to the conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist types of churches. I know a great may “nones” most of whom fall into the “spiritual but not religious” or “I’m not a Christian, I’m a follower of Christ” camps. They would never join a bigoted, homophobic church but I can see them being drawn to one of the many more ecumenical churches with a vague, undefined liberal theology.

  • Sven2547

    The Republican Party runs on a Christian-supremacist platform.  The Dems don’t even need to reach out to the “Nones”, because they probably won’t vote Republican regardless.

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      Even the Democrats run on a God-supremacist platform, so there’s really not much choice for people who want religion completely out of politics. It’s a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils.

      • Sven2547

        There’s a big difference between the Dems, who reluctantly added some fluff about God in their platform, and the GOP, who actively legislate their superstitions into law.

        • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

          But it’s not “some fluff,” and there was nothing reluctant about their promotion of faith in the Democratic platform.

          Faith has always been a central part of the American story, and it has been a driving force of progress and justice throughout our history. We know that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith and the countless acts of justice and mercy it inspires. Faith- based organizations will always be critical allies in meeting the challenges that face our nation and our world—from domestic and global poverty, to climate change and human trafficking. People of faith and religious organizations do amazing work in communities across this country and the world, and we believe in lifting up and valuing that good work, and finding ways to support it where possible. We believe in constitutionally sound, evidence-based partnerships with faith-based and other non-profit organizations to serve those in need and advance our shared interests. There is no conflict between supporting faith-based institutions and respecting our Constitution, and a full commitment to both principles is essential for the continued flourishing of both faith and country.

          Obviously it’s not as bad as what the Republicans do, but this is still excessive entanglement of church and state, and people who want religion out of politics don’t have much of a choice. We vote for the Democrats even though they’re actively saying that faith is something they want to see flourish. It’s not just pandering, either, since the platform says outright that the government should partner with faith-based groups, and Democratic politicians have shown that they will do so.

  • http://billybobsbibleblog.blogspot.com/ billybobbibb

    It’s interesting that 26% of nones voted for Romney, I would think that number would be much lower.  Here is an interesting hypothetical question to ponder:  If by some fluke of politics, an atheist Republican and a Christian Democrat were nominated for President, which would you vote for?

    I don’t know about you, but when voting for politicians, political philosophy and record count a lot more than religious affiliation.

    • de

      A similar thing happened in my home state.  There was an atheist Republican who ran for state rep against a Christian Democrat.  However there were many reasons not to support him not least of which he wrote racist rantings on his myspace page against African Americans, he supported a voucher system similar to Louisiana’s, and believed in a variety of pseudo-sciences and conspiracy theories.  When the fact that he was an atheist came out he started going to church and running ads touting his faith.  He lost an election quite badly considering it is a district a Republican should be competitive

    • C Peterson

      I don’t vote for people because they are Republicans or Democrats. I vote for them for their political views, as well as my assessment of their intellectual ability. Almost certainly the atheist is smarter than the religious candidate, but that’s just one thing to consider.

      You’d need to provide a lot more information about the views of both candidates for anybody to rationally answer your question.

      • 3lemenope

        Almost certainly the atheist is smarter than the religious candidate, but that’s just one thing to consider.

        Almost certainly? What evidence do you have to support that?

        • C Peterson

          As I’ve said before, I don’t believe it’s possible for a religious theist to be critically intelligent. I’ve never encountered an example that dissuades me from that view.

          Atheists aren’t necessarily critically intelligent, but at least that possibility exists.

          • 3lemenope

            I’ve never encountered an example that dissuades me from that view.

            My advice would be: get out more, meet more people.

            • Anon

              While I have met theists who are very intelligent it is kind of hard to get over the ‘you know THAT much and yet you still believe in an invisible man in the sky’.

              • 3lemenope

                I think part of the problem might be the assumption that theism necessitates believing in “an invisible man in the sky” or anything comparable. 

                • Drakk

                  That’s basically what theism is. If you have some other fluffy-fluttery spiritual belief that doesn’t specifically include invisible sky people, that belief doesn’t fall under the term “theism”.

                • 3lemenope

                  There’s a tradition, just in Christianity for one example among many, that runs from Aquinas to Tillich that flatly rejects your definition of theism.

                  This is what happens when atheists ignore theology. They end up misunderstanding their opponents and consequently arguing against strawmen.

                • C Peterson

                  Those theologians, from Aquinas to Tillich, were not critical thinkers. Indeed, they produced vast quantities of utter intellectual rubbish.

                  While it is historically useful to know what they believed, it is of no real value intellectually, and leads to no actual understanding of anything meaningful.

                • 3lemenope

                  A person cavalierly dismisses the work of their opponents at their own intellectual peril. 

                  That the conclusion is in error is not sufficient reason to dismiss the process or the tools employed to reach it unless they are indissolubly tied to the conclusion. The history of western thought very strongly suggests that they are not.

                  Anyway, I’m getting half a whiff of “Hamlet is not worth studying because ghosts. I mean seriously, ghosts?! What rubbish.” off this line of reasoning. Theology’s objects of concern may not exist, but neither do the objects described in literature. It’s silly to conclude that something has no value simply because its objects of concern are virtual rather than actual. You need to do more to show that there actually is no value present.

              • C Peterson

                Of course, you can be intelligent in the sense that you can apply yourself functionally to difficult problems, and at the same time lack the ability to apply critical thinking across the board.

                You can’t think critically and intelligently and remain a theist, however, and you certainly can’t accept the dogma of any theistic religion.

          • Jinx

            “I don’t believe that it’s possible for a religious theist to be critically intelligent.”

            That is an extremely narrow-minded and biased evaluation. 

            Intelligent people (such as yourself) can sometimes believe in very stupid things.

            Absolutely nothing about rationality or “critical thought” suggests that you must reject certain concepts to truly be considered “intelligent.” 

            Plato was an intelligent man (in his day) who believed that maggots spontaneously generated on meat. There were many intelligent men in Europe who lived centuries after Plato yet treated his concept of “spontaneous generation” as gospel. 

            Similarly, Muslim astronomers of the 11th century (a very brilliant group of people) claimed to have “doubts” about the Earth being at the center of the universe. Even still, they ignored these doubts and persisted in their belief of geocentricism.

            Likewise, there are many intelligent people who believe strongly in God. In many cases, they might find religion attractive due to the familiarity of the institution (i.e. they were raised in it), the comfort of “knowing” where they will go when they die, a false sense of philosophical enlightenment (it is always dangerous to be completely in love with one’s own ideals), or the social structure that comes with religious belief. Some may have doubts; yet they persist in their beliefs.

            • C Peterson

              You’re entitled to your view, of course. I think it is impossible to be a religious theist and critically intelligent. The two are mutually exclusive.

              I’m not talking about historical times, when there were not rational alternatives to religious views. I’m talking about the modern world.

              • 3lemenope

                I’m curious what aspect of religious theism you think is fundamentally incompatible with critical intelligence.

                I imagine it might help if I knew what you meant by “religious theism” and “critical intelligence”, while we’re at it.

                • C Peterson

                  I’m using religious theism to distinguish from mild deism, to refer to anybody who maintains a belief in a personal god or who believes a god or gods are involving themselves in the operation of the Universe.

                  By critical intelligence, I mean having both the brain machinery to think well, and the mindset to actually use it critically.

                  Since it is essentially impossible to justify the existence of any gods, and since all major religions are obviously absurd, it follows that only those incapable of critical thought believe in them.

                  I like the way Dawkins has put it, classifying all religious theists as failing to demonstrate critical intelligence, but classifying them by specific religion, with some (e.g. Mormonism) being more batshit crazy than others (e.g. Catholicism), and therefore requiring a greater lack of critical intelligence in their followers.

                • 3lemenope

                  Talk about assuming your conclusion. I mean, geez. 

                • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

                  Actually, this just means that the key propositions have never been subjected to critical scrutiny, being (in effect) the horn of Münchausen’s trilemma that serves as their basis for critical thinking.

                  While people are less likely to accept the Bible as intelligence increases, among those where the Bible is still accepted (either as Inerrant or merely Inspired), higher intelligence correlates to higher religiosity.

                • C Peterson

                  Note that I am distinguishing simple intelligence (the mental machinery) from critical intelligence, which requires the critical utilization of that machinery.

                  It is the latter that I consider entirely incompatible with religiosity, and therefore entirely absent in the religious, as well as in most theists.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        Circa 2:1 odds are a good bet, but hardly “almost certain”.

        • C Peterson

          Since I don’t believe that religious people are intelligent enough to qualify for public office at all, I’ll stick with “almost certain” in comparison with atheist. But your 2:1 sounds reasonable in comparing the religious to the nones (many of whom are not atheists).

          • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

             No, that was based on comparing distribution of WORDSUM score for Nones who do not believe in God, to that for the religious (regardless of belief in God). The former still isn’t quite exactly “Atheist”, but is a closer proxy than you’re suggesting.

            But you seem set on assuming your conclusion.

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      I’d vote for the Democrat. I don’t agree with anything the Republicans stand for. It’s not just social issues, although I can’t imagine an atheist Republican staunchly supporting reproductive rights, gay rights, and separation of church and state. If by some chance he or she did, the other Republicans would never allow that person to get as far as being nominated for President.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        If you found an atheist Republican, you’d actually have good odds on abortion rights and Church and State separation support, and probably have an increasing chance of acceptance of Gay Marriage. They’d probably be a Randite, though.

        However, you should probably check out the “Public Catholic” blog here on Patheos before presuming your support should automatically go to the Democrat.

        • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

          I don’t know how that’s possible when many of those things are against the Republican platform. And even if you happened to find a Republican who was liberal on social issues, there’s still the matter of economic policies. An atheist Republican with Libertarian leanings wouldn’t appeal to me, either. 

          There are absolutely Democrats who are bad on these issues. I wouldn’t just blindly support any Democrat who runs for office, but I can’t imagine favoring a Republican over a Democrat, unless this was some alternate universe where the Republican was extremely progressive on every issue and the Democrat was uber-conservative.

        • Jinx

          Personally, there are some Democrats who I would refuse to support; I would not support some “blue dog” Democrats, and I would be very wary of any candidate (Republican or Democrat) who had extensive ties to any of the major oil companies or financial institutions. 

          Unfortunately, with my specific guidelines, it is very difficult to cast support behind any particular candidate. Even still, I would ultimately hold my nose and vote for the Democrat (in almost all cases) simply because I strongly disagree with Republican policies. (In some rare cases, I might consider voting for a Green Party candidate as a protest vote……)

          I seriously doubt that you would find any openly non-theistic Republican who supports abortion rights, the separation of church and state, and marriage equality.

          If such a candidate did exist, I still would not vote for them; I do not like Republican policies on issues such as economics and healthcare. There is much more to all of this than identity politics and social issues; your “imaginary” Republican candidate still would not get the votes of the unaffiliated left……..

    • Birdie1986

      “None” doesn’t mean these people don’t believe in God.  It just means they don’t affiliate with any particular religion or sect.  I would guess, but would like to know if there is any research out there on this, that these “nones” who voted for Romney included some atheists and agnostics, but were most likely non-affiliated theists.

  • eskomo

    I need to see a third column. What percentage of the vote does each group represent. The nonwhite vote was more skewed to the Pres. Obama than Romney, and I am sure that group has a sizable percentage of the vote. Are the “Nones” 5%, 10%, 20%? If it is a low percentage of the vote, who would risk losing more of the religious vote?

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      The Nones are about 20% of US adult citizens, about 12% of the voters. Try the CNN exit polls page (which may require clicking the “Exit Polls” tab, depending on browser and/or add-ons).

      For multi-way correlations, you can play with 2008 election data using the GSS-2010.

      The key is that the Nones are a modest but rapidly rising segment of the vote — and with high potential to increase turnout. The impact on the black and hispanic vote due to their level of religious voters is a limiting factor; however, it should be possible for a competent politician to make some gestures to the “nones” without massively pissing off those ethnic minorities.

  • FSM

    It just doesn’t matter to me. Both the Democrats and Republicans have worked very hard to make it a two horse race. So much that they have passed rules and laws that makes it much harder for a 3rd party candidate. The result has been that we often have two extremists running against each other and the moderate voice is left out. I have heard that people don’t ‘want to throw my vote away’, but until we stop voting for the same pieces of @#$%, we will continue to get what we deserve. I envision a day when politicians run away from the two parties because to be associated with one would be poison. I no longer vote for anyone with a D or an R next to their name because we need choices.

    Whenever I watch a political debate I think of this now:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lA7B3vpIlmQ

    • ortcutt

       Who are these supposed “extremist” Democrats?  I just don’t see that anywhere. In reality, we have one very moderate party and one extremist right-wing party.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        They’re called the “Green Party”….

        • Jinx

          There are only a very small number of Green party candidates in any kind of elected office here in the US….

          Meanwhile, there is a good deal of evidence that the Republican party has become hyper-partisan in a relatively short amount of time. This excellent piece from Nate Silver (written about a year ago) can serve as a primer to the subject:http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/07/why-the-g-o-p-cannot-compromise/

  • ortcutt

    “Will Democrats try to reach out to the religiously unaffiliated
    to get an even larger share of votes — or risk us not voting at all due
    to apathy?”

    I don’t really understand what “reaching out” the unaffiliated is supposed to mean there.  I want politicians to stand up for the constitutional principles of secularism, not namecheck me.  The most courageous stand for state secularism I have seen in my lifetime was when following the medical recommendation of the Institute of Medicine, the Obama administration included contraception coverage in Obamacare (for employers other than churches and other houses of worship) and didn’t fall over backwards when the Catholic Church had a fit. 

  • http://www.bartontees.com/ Barton Tees

    “Nones” works great for punning. I’ve been saying “a priest and a none walk into a bar”

    Interesting side note, while trying to broaden my none-pun repitoire, I went in search of what you call a group of nuns, a flock? a bevy? No, apparently a group of nuns is called a superfluity of nuns…..which seems about right.

    So what do you call a group of nones?

  • SeekerLancer

    So are we a big enough group to pander to yet? I really want politicians to pander to me for a change. Why should everybody else hog all the pandering?

  • Pawel Samson

    You can slice these stats any which way, so I don’t pay attention to them.  For example, much has been made of Obama losing the overall male vote, but if you dig deeper you find that he actually won the unmarried male vote, and he only had a real problem attracting white male support in the Southern and Western states.  I’m sure if you dig deeper within the “None” vote stats, it would be far more illuminating.  I’m betting he won much more than 67% of the atheist vote, and much less than 67% of theists who aren’t churchgoers.

  • Pawel Samson

    Also interesting:  from the looks of it, it seems as much as 7% of Nones voted third-party (or didn’t want to disclose who they were voting for maybe?)  That’s a larger chunk than any other group shown.

  • Will Spencer

    The GOP isn’t going to have a lot of appeal to non-religious people until they give up on the idea that they can force other people to live under their religious views.

    Rand Paul just introduced another bill banning abortion in America. This is the worst sort of big government intrusion into private matters which the GOP *should* be fighting *against*. The GOP is failing at being the party of small government and it will continue to fail at the polls until it fixes that.

    Until then, the Republicans only offer the voters a slightly different flavor of tyranny.


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