A Changing Electorate

Posted on October 4, 2016 by

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Both major political parties within the United States, Republican and Democrat, focus on key demographics that will help them to win office.  This continues to be true in the current presidential election as certain groups of people are targeted for their vote.  In the case of the Republican party, Pew polls indicate that those registered as Republican tend to be older, white and religiously affiliated.  On the other hand, those registered as Democrat tend to be younger, non-white and less religious.   This has changed over time and will continue to be an important area of observation as voting trends change.

Focusing on one key characteristic such as religious affiliation may give each party insight into what the future holds for their electorate.  Americans overall are very religious; however those who do not affiliate with a certain religion are increasing.  Religiously unaffiliated voters describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” have grown from 8% in 1996 to 21% in 2016. This trend continues to grow, although it is not a pattern occurring in each party equally.  The rate of religiously unaffiliated voters is growing faster among Democrats than Republicans.  For example, 10% of Democratic voters were unaffiliated in 1996 compared to 29% today.   Whereas, religiously unaffiliated voters in the Republican party only grew from 6% to 12%.  This is a trend that has consequences for each party as voting behavior changes.

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There is room for debate as to which demographic is most prominent in each election and it isn’t clear that non-religious voters will make much of a difference at the polls.  Although they make up more of the electorate today than in previous years, studies have shown it does not always translate into more votes.  When comparing exit polls of cast votes to pre-election polls of registered voters, the unaffiliated tend not to vote as much as other groups of individuals.  One example of this is in 2012 when 18% of registered voters were said to be unaffiliated but only 12% went out and voted.  Pew researches speculate as to why the non-religious tend not to vote stating that,

 “While the group is growing rapidly in the general public, its growth has been much less dramatic in the electorate,” Pew’s Smith said. “It could be the ‘nones’ are not connected, almost by definition, to religious institutions, which can play an important role in spurring turnout and interest in politics.”

The precise reasons for why they show up in few numbers is not clear, however it will be important for politicians, especially those in the Democratic Party to pay attention to this changing trend.  Non-religious voters are now the country’s largest “religious” voting bloc making up one-fifth of all registered voters.  The data suggests that even if not all registered non-religious voters turn up to the polls they are a growing demographic that will impact elections.   If trends in non-religion continue, the Democratic Party may change its discourse avoiding highlighting religion while campaigning.  The Republican Party may stay the dominant party of religious voters and even enhance its rhetoric on religious identity.  Conjecture aside, each party will need to accommodate for changing demographics and revise their strategy for reaching voters.

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This trend is especially interesting considering America’s affinity for electing not only religious politicians, but specifically Christian ones.  The role of religion in American politics has been significant and an important part of a candidates identity.  In 2008, 72% of voters said it was important for a president to have religious beliefs.   There is still an untrustworthy view of non-religious people and an important part of campaigning is stating a religious identity.  An example of the perception of atheists as hurting a campaign was seen during the primaries.  Leaked emails by WikiLeaks show DNC Chief Financial Officer Brad Marshall attempting  to damage Senator Bernie Sanders campaign by framing him as a atheist. Marshall wrote to DNC directors that

 “It might may (sic) no difference, but for KY and WVA can we get someone to ask his belief. Does he believe in a God. He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.”

This statement, along with polling data, reveals America’s distrust with the nonreligious.  Understanding that the majority Americans relating non-religious affiliation as something that can damage a campaign shows the prominent role religion has in American political discourse.  As voting patterns change not only will party strategy change, but perhaps also politicians requirement for religious affiliation. It will be fascinating to observe the trends of growing non-religious voters and how each political party will respond.  There is no doubt the electorate is transforming and being able to accommodate for that change may make the difference in coming elections.

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