I’ve always been interested in the demographics of the nonreligious (hence my massive fanship of The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies by Zuckerman, Galen and Pasquale).
As a result, this FiveThirtyEight article is of particular interest. The main point has been pretty obvious for some time: the nonreligious are far more likely to be left-leaning and Democrat voters (obviously not exclusively) and so, even if the Democrats superficially embraced religion (for the optics), such voters would stick with the Democrats. On the flip, if the Democrats openly courted the nonreligious, they would lose a lot of votes. Remember that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be religious:
Democrats are once again doubling down on religion this year. Faith was on full display during the Democratic National Convention, where Joe Biden closed out the week with several pointed references to his Catholic faith. And the Biden campaign is also making an ambitious play for white evangelical Protestants and Mormons, two loyal Republican groups where Democrats hope to make some inroads.
Often lost in this, though, is the fact that Democrats are mostly ignoring a massive group of voters who are becoming an increasingly crucial part of their base: people who don’t have any religion at all.
Right now, voters with no religious affiliation look like they might back Biden in record numbers. According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in early August, 72 percent of nonreligious voters — a group that includes people who identify as atheists, agnostics and nothing in particular — are planning to support Biden. That’s 4 percentage points higher than the 68 percent who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. And that’s a big deal, because despite being frequently overlooked, nonreligious people make up a sizable part of the electorate. An analysis of validated voters by Pew found that religiously unaffiliated voters accounted for one-quarter of the electorate in 2016, and 30 percent in 2018.
The unaffiliated are a key demographic for Democratic candidates in particular. More than one-third of the people who voted for Clinton in 2016 were religiously unaffiliated, making them just as electorally important for Democrats as white evangelical Protestants are for Republicans. Yet despite constantly hearing about the importance of white evangelical voters in an election cycle, Democratic politicians have been slow to embrace the growing number of nonreligious people who vote for them. Why?
In the past, the challenges of organizing the religiously unaffiliated have made it easy to understand why Democrats haven’t made a real effort to appeal to them more. As most don’t regularly gather like a church congregation, religiously unaffiliated Americans can be difficult to reach. A lack of institutional leadership also means there aren’t many prominent people or groups showing up to nudge politicians to pay attention to their issues. And despite rising tolerance for atheists and nonreligious people in American culture, overt appeals to the nonreligious still run the risk of turning off the majority of voters who are people of faith.
But there are signs that antipathy toward President Trump has mobilized some religiously unaffiliated voters in unprecedented ways. Although Trump is not an overtly pious figure, he’s embraced a vision of American culture that privileges Christian identity and heritage. That’s a view that most nonreligious Americans reject, which is likely a part of the reason that their support for Biden is so high, despite the campaign’s minimal outreach efforts. In the coming years, though, that calculus might have to change, since the growing size of the country’s nonreligious population could make these voters more difficult for Democrats to ignore.
“I think in future elections we’re going to see more of an effort to reach a secular voting bloc and the reason is simply that they’re continuing to grow,” said David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame who studies religion and politics. “It’s too ripe a target for politicians to ignore.”
Over the past 10 years, the share of Americans who identify as Christian has fallen by 12 percentage points, while the share of people who say they have no religious affiliation is up 9 percentage points. That breaks down to 1 in every 4 Americans who are now religiously unaffiliated, including 40 percent of millennials. Meanwhile, there’s no sign that nonreligious Americans are returning to religion as they get older.
These shifts stand to benefit Democrats more than they benefit Republicans. Nearly two-thirds of religiously unaffiliated Americans identify as Democrats, a sharp increase from just a few decades ago, when the (much smaller) nonreligious population was fairly evenly split between the parties. And in 2018, a record-high share (75 percent) of religiously unaffiliated voters supported Democratic candidates. As the table below shows, that kind of extreme partisan tilt is rivaled by only two other major religious groups: Black Protestants and white evangelical Protestants.
We already know there are more Democrats in the US than Republicans so the key to Democrats winning is voter mobilisation; the flipside being that the GOP realise this and so spend a lot of time disenfranchising voters, suppressing them and gerrymandering districts to restrict voter mobilisation. They win if fewer people get out to vote. In fact, convincing voters from one side to change their vote is not going to work very easily. This is why this article is so important going forward.
We already know that there is a demographic shift towards the Democrats throughout the country, hence the huge shift in poll numbers in ruby-red states towards the Dems, and this is predominantly from white voters.
Going forward, if the US is moving away from religion in a big way, then this demographic will shift even more in favour of the Democrats because of the overwhelming predilection of nonreligious voters to side with the Dems.
Religious voters (such as some who comment here) might not like this, but it is the truth. We have long recognised the dwindling power of WASPs (white Anglo-Saxxon Protestants) to get the GOP voted in. This further compounds that problem, especially as the growing nonreligious bloc gets older (where older people are more likely to vote).
As the article continues, the old belief that nonreligious are less likely to vote is no longer so true:
And surveys also indicate that nonreligious people are just as likely as religious Americans to donate and engage in other political activities. A recent working paper also suggests that a lack of religious engagement may not be the main driver of lower turnout among secular people. Instead, religiously unaffiliated voters were more likely to have other characteristics (in particular, being young) that also correlate with low turnout.
“It turns out that when you put in basic statistical controls, most of the secular voting gap in recent years disappears and nonreligious people appear to turn out at about the same rate as [religiously] affiliated people,” said Evan Stewart, the study’s author and a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
The growing “anger and energy” that the nonreligious are showing for voting will also prove important in the changing demographics, at least in the present political climate.
The challenge for the Democrats is to be able to pull these voters into their hold with progressive policies and outlooks as many of these modern secular voters will have progressive positions.
Interesting times ahead.
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