With the 2016 presidential election being one of the most memorable in modern history, a nationwide survey shows that the surprising outcome is largely due to group of Americans known as “notional Christians” – a group that considers itself as Christian, but does not practice the faith on a daily basis.
“Religion played a significant role in the election – from the activity of dozens of national religious leaders, to the importance of various faith-related issues, to the high level of turnout among key segments of faith-driven voters,” the Barna Group reported.
Media coverage of the 2016 election and campaigns may have been greater than previous presidential contests, but those showing up to the ballot box did not outnumber the tally that was recorded four years ago.
“Although official turnout statistics for the election will not be available for a while, the most reliable estimate suggests that the national turnout among voting-eligible people was exactly the same as in 2012, at a shade under 59 percent,” Barna researchers divulged.
Faith segments examined
Differences in voter turnout within America’s major faith segments shows minor differences.
“The highest turnout was among evangelicals, at 61 percent,” Barna indicated. “That was slightly higher than occurred among both non-evangelical born again Christians (58 percent) and notional Christians (59 percent). All three of those Christian segments showed up at the polls in marginally higher proportions than was true among the primary non-Christian segments: people aligned with non-Christian faiths (57 percent) and the no-faith group (57 percent).”
Looking back four years at the last election cycle, there was not too much change compared to this November.
“During the Obama-Romney contest, 59 percent of evangelicals turned out to vote, along with 60 percent of non-evangelical born again Christians and 55 percent of notional Christians,” the researchers recounted. “As was also the pattern this year, people associated with non-Christian faiths were less likely to show up (48 percent) while the atheist-agnostic-no faith coalition – a segment known as the skeptics – was the least likely of these niches to cast a ballot (40 percent).”
Examining the total vote tally for each faith segment, it was found that each group registers major differences.
“Evangelicals provided 10 million votes; non-evangelical born again voters produced 33 million; and notional Christians delivered 58 million,” Barna revealed. “Adults representing non-Christian faiths generated 7 million ballots cast, and the skeptic segment was responsible for 28 million votes.”
The contrast in numbers between the last two elections is also worth noting.
“Compared to the 2012 election, the aggregate born again population produced eight million fewer votes in 2016 despite having a slightly higher turnout rate and the national population having expanded by about five million people,” the Christian research group explained. “The decline in the number of votes cast is because the proportion of voting born again adults dropped from 37 percent to 31 percent.”
Other stark contrasts were also pointed out between 2012 and 2016,
“The number of votes from citizens who did not associate with Christianity skyrocketed from 20 million in 2012 to 35 million in 2016. In this case there are two explanations for the jump,” Barna reported. “First, the proportion of the population in this category rose from 20 percent to 24 percent during the last four years. Second, the turnout rates of these people also increased, from a combined 41 percent in 2012 to 57 percent in 2016. That increased their share of the total number of votes cast from 16 percent in 2012 to 26 percent in 2016.”
Rallying behind candidates
There were also major distinctions when looking at how the five faith segments voted for candidates.
“Evangelicals emerged as one of Donald Trump’s most ardent bases of support,” those analyzing the survey noted. “Nearly four out of five (79 percent) voted for Trump, compared to 18 percent siding with Hillary Clinton, providing the Republican candidate with better than a four-to-one margin. Non-evangelical born again Christians also gave the President-elect a comfortable margin, 56 percent to 35 percent. The remaining Christian-leaning segment, the notional Christians, essentially split their vote, providing Trump with a scant two-point preference (49 percent to 47 percent).”
When viewing how those not adhering to Christianity voted, Clinton emerged a decisive favorite.
“When it comes to the voters who associated with a non-Christian faith, 71 percent selected her while only 20 percent backed Trump,” Barna disclosed. “Skeptics also preferred Clinton but by a smaller margin (60 percent to 27 percent).”
Even though many media analysts maintained that evangelicals overwhelmingly voted to Trump compared to previous elections, the assertion does not hold water, according to the conservative organization.
“The 79 percent that evangelicals awarded to the GOP nominee was actually the lowest level of evangelical support for a Republican candidate since Bob Dole lost to Bill Clinton in 1996, garnering 74 percent of their support,” Barna pollsters discovered. “The 79 percent figure earned by Trump in this election was slightly lower than the 81 percent given to Mitt Romney in 2012. Which was previously the lowest level of evangelical support for a Republican candidate since Dole.”
However, it was found that aggregate born agains registered a different story at the ballot box.
“Looking at the aggregate born again vote – that is, the combined votes of evangelicals and non-evangelical born again adults – Trump’s 61 percent to 32 percent advantage over Clinton provided him with a larger cushion than was given to the Republican hopefuls in the previous five elections (which averaged a 59 percent to 40 percent result),” the survey results state. “In other words, the 29 percentage point victory he earned over Clinton this year was substantially bigger than the average 19-point gap that GOP candidates enjoyed in elections since 1996.”
Barna asserts that Trump’s overwhelming evangelical support was not the deciding factor of the election.
“Barna’s research indicates that perhaps the most significant faith group in relation to the Trump triumph was notional Christians,” the conservative group announced.” These individuals – who consider themselves to be Christian, typically attend a Christian church, but are not born again – have supported the Democratic candidate in every election since 1996. On average, notionals have given the Democratic candidate 58 percent of their votes. That trend was broken this year as Hillary Clinton took just 47 percent of the group’s votes while Trump was awarded 49 percent. Given that notionals are by far the largest of the five faith segments, that transition was a game changer for the Republicans.”
The Protestant vote proved disastrous for the former first lady.
“The … survey also revealed that Protestants gave Trump 58 percent of their votes and Clinton received only 36 percent,” Barna research maintained. “Catholics split their vote, awarding 48 percent to each candidate. This is the first election in the last 20 years in which the Catholic vote was not won by the Democratic candidate.”
Campaigning, debates and media headlines in the final months leading into the election proved to have a major influence the outcome.
“Upon comparing the data from a national poll by Barna Group in early September with the election survey conducted in November, the differences show what a difference two months can make in the minds of voters,” researchers stressed. “There was minor movement toward Donald Trump during those two months among both evangelicals (an eight-point gain in his lead over Clinton) and non-evangelical born again Christians (a 3-point increase in his lead).”
Notional Christians scored Trump the most significant bump in support during the final stage of the campaign trails – to the surprise of many.
“While that segment preferred Clinton by 12 points in September, they wound up siding with Trump by a two-point differential,” the numbers show. “That represents a 14-point gain in the final two months among the numerically-largest pool of religious voters.”
Trump’s Democratic rival, on the other hand, registered big gains from faith groups not adhering to Christianity.
“Clinton finished strongly, in terms of total votes received, partially because of a huge rise in support among people aligned with non-Christian faiths,” the researchers added. “Her margin of preference increased among that group from seven points in September to a whopping 51 points on Election Day – a 44-point climb in eight weeks! Unfortunately for her campaign, the other-faith segment was the smallest of the five primary faith segments, rendering that growth in support significant but not enough to seal the deal.”
Those of little faith – to the surprise of many – ended up warming up to Trump.
“Another shocking twist during the last two months was the shift of allegiance to Trump among atheists and agnostics. Trump gained 10 percentage points on Clinton among this group,” researchers pointed out.
Examining how other segment voted
Taking a look at how other segments – many with religious overtones – voted, some major discrepancies were found.
Pro-life advocates. Overall, 44 percent of voters said they fit this description. They were more than twice as likely to vote for Trump (64 percent) as Clinton (29 percent).
Theological conservatives. Three out of ten people associated with this label, and they supported Trump by better than a 3-to-1 ratio (71 percent to 23 percent).
Environmentalists. Four out of every ten respondents embraced this label. They supported Clinton by a 52 percent to 38 percent preference.
Tea Party supporters. Only 21 percent of the respondents adopted this label. However, the group was fervently behind Trump, 85 percent to 15 percent.
Advocates of LGBT rights. While the LGBT community is estimated to be only 4 percent of the population, ten times as many voters (41 percent) say they are advocates for the rights of that segment. They preferred Clinton by better than a 2-to-1 margin (63 percent to 28 percent).
Believe absolute moral truth exists. Half of all voters (52 percent) aligned with this concept. They also preferred Trump by a considerable margin (53 percent to 34 percent).
Support traditional moral values. Surprisingly, seven out of ten voters (71 percent) said they fit in this category. Most of them voted for Trump (53 percent versus 35 percent).
The Christian vote triumphed
George Barna, who served as a special analyst in the study, emphasized the major faith related divisions that made the difference.
“Voters who considered themselves to be Christian were more likely to vote for Trump than Clinton. Those who were not associated with the Christian faith were overwhelmingly behind Clinton,” Barna’s founder maintained. “Each of the three Christian segments – evangelicals, non-evangelical born agains, and notional Christians – went with Trump. Both of the non-Christian segments – those associated with other faiths as well as the skeptics – were in Clinton’s camp. Just as the candidates displayed vastly different political orientations, the voters who lined up behind each of them reflected many of those same differences.”
The former owner of the Barna Group also points out that the faith played the major factor in the election.
“Think about all of the significant faith-driven events in the campaign,” Barna continued. “Eight evangelicals ran for the GOP nomination. There were high-profile meetings featuring the major candidates with large groups of faith leaders. Big Data targeting efforts focused upon voters’ faith inclination were employed. Key issues in the race, such as the Supreme Court nominations, abortion, and religious liberty, were intimately related to peoples’ religious perspectives and passions. Numerous churches and religious coalitions held prayer rallies and fasting vigils. Like it or not, the importance of peoples’ faith was front and center in this election.”
He also noted how pollsters working for major media outlets failed miserably this year.
“The mainstream media got a lot of things wrong in this election regarding their assessment of the role of faith,” Barna asserted. “One of those misdiagnoses was their assertion that the election featured a record-breaking turnout among evangelicals. While their turnout was strong, it was not record-breaking. In fact, evangelicals’ concern over the character of both candidates kept many of them from choosing a candidate until very late in the process, and a higher-than-usual proportion of them voted for the more liberal candidate.”
The veteran research expert emphasized how Americans should be wary of one telling statistic moving forward into the next election in 2020.
“There has been no discussion about the fact that the skeptic vote really kept Hillary Clinton in the race,” Barna stressed. “The 33-point margin she retained with that one-fifth slice of the voting population was her primary faith base. The size of the skeptic population continues to grow while the born again community continues to shrink. That is a trend that will be a major challenge for conservative and Republican candidates in the future.”