Pew Research: There've been three significant religious shifts in U.S. politics since 1994

The latest Pew Research Center survey amalgamates (that's our word of the day) 257 surveys over 23 years about the  political alignments of some 350,000 U.S. registered voters, with important data on gender and other demographics.

We also find valuable context for religion reporters covering political dynamics, and for political reporters covering religious dynamics. Rather than lumping all Protestants and Catholics together, Pew’s data carefully distinguish between the two main and very different Protestant camps, white “mainline” vs. “evangelical,” and between white non-Hispanic Catholics and the politically distinct Hispanics who are now 34 percent of U.S. Catholics.

The following numbers will compare January of 1994, the year Republicans regained control of the U.S. House after a 40-year drought, with last December, the end of Donald Trump’s first year as president. The percentages combine those who identify with a political party with those who “lean” that way.

For Democrats, some patterns are stable. Black Protestants’ overwhelming support rose a notch, from 82 percent to 87 percent. Hispanic Catholics’ Democratic affinity slipped from 69 percent to 64 percent. Jews’ loyalty was virtually unchanged at 69 percent vs. the current 67 percent.

White "mainline” Protestants are split between the parties, with Republican support edging up a bit, from 50 percent in 1994 to the current 53 percent. Mormons’ strong Republicanism (a major irony in 19th Century terms) was 80 percent during the 1994 sweep but sagged to 72 percent last December, presumably reflecting some distaste toward Mr. Trump.

This brings us to the three big shifts that will shape national and state elections in 2018 and beyond.

*  This generation’s big new factor, as you almost certainly have heard, is Americans with no religious affiliation, or “nones” -- by Pew’s count now 24 percent of  U.S. registered voters. In 1994 they gave the Democrats majority support at a mere 52 percent, compared with a lopsided 68 percent by 2017. The “nones” constitute a significant one-third of  Democratic voters.

 

* White evangelical Protestants, north and south, consistently favor Republicans but, notably, their 61 percent support in 1994 has now reached an overwhelming 77 percent. The huge evangelical bloc provides a third of Republican votes, mirroring those Democratic “nones.”  (Reporters  continually note that self-identified evangelicals voted 81 percent for the morally problematic candidate Trump. Big deal. They went 79 percent for Mitt Romney though deeming his Mormonism religiously problematic.)

* The major swing vote, often downplayed in news articles, is white non-Hispanic Catholics. Their alignment with Republicans was only 45 percent in 1994 and has now moved up to 54 percent.

As The Religion Guy noted previously, this factor delivered Trump’s surprise White House win, thanks to his Big Ten/Rust Belt sweep of Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and nearly Minnesota as well. Why isn't that story getting more mainstream news coverage?

All the above represents a politically potent shift after a century in which Catholics were consistently Democratic, white “mainline” Protestants were Republican, and white evangelicals were split between northern Republicans and southern Democrats.

Upsumming all of this for journalists: Looked at religiously, today’s realignment pits a Republican core of moderate and conservative white Christians who are religiously active, both Protestants and Catholics, over against a Democratic coalition of non-religious voters plus the usual minorities and liberal elite.

The religious factor shapes, and will continue to shape, the two parties’ policies and court appointments.

Related: See this Mark Silk column on Gallup data.

Please respect our Commenting Policy