If you’ve been watching the coverage of the early caucuses and primaries you’ve heard a lot about Evangelicals. I feel like I have an intimate understanding of what Evangelicals like for breakfast and what their Oscar picks are. Yet virtually nothing is being said about Catholic, Jewish, or other voters—including the fastest growing religious identity group in the country, those without a faith (i.e. Nones). Are we all just Evangelical or not now? No, instead the media organizations that develop the exit and entrance polls with Edison Media Research have decided that only Evangelicals really matter at this stage. It’s the only thing they find interesting when it comes to religion.
I asked Edison Media Research in an email why no religion questions are being used this year as in past years. Alicia Colomer responded, “Each state questionnaire is decided upon individually and members from each of the networks comprising the National Election Pool determine which questions will be asked in any given state. The questionnaires for future primaries and elections have not yet been determined so it is not known at this point if the religion question that has been used in the past will be on future questionnaires.”
So am I just a cranky social scientist? Yes. But I also want to note that if you only ask respondents if they are an Evangelical or not, the data you get back is, for lack of a better term, crap. This is no secret to most social scientists who study religion (or elections). For example, here are results from the 2014 General Social Survey that show the religious affiliation of those who said they were “born again” or an Evangelical and those who said they were not.
Only 78% of “Evangelicals” are Protestants or other Christians. An additional 13% are Catholic, 2% are some other faith (including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.), and 7% have no religious affiliation at all. More important, among the 78% of Evangelicals who are Protestants or Christians, many have different definitions or conceptions of what an “Evangelical” is. It all makes for good television and graphs but in reality doesn’t amount to much of anything real in a sociological or theological sense. Regardless of measurement errors I will admit it is still an interesting group to study. It just does not reflect the group that most journalists assume they are actually talking about. Did Donald Trump win the Evangelical vote in South Carolina? Who won the “real” Evangelical vote?
The GSS above is no outlier. This is a fairly established pattern in surveys where respondents are asked the religious affiliation and the Evangelical question. For example, in the Pew Research Center’s original Religious Landscape Survey conducted in 2007 anyone who self-identified as a Christian was asked an Evangelical identity question. Only 61% of those who said they would describe themselves as “a ‘born-again’ or evangelical Christian” were members of Evangelical Protestant churches. An additional 27% were members of other Protestant churches. Eleven percent were Catholic and less than 2% were members of some other Christian faith (i.e., Orthodox Christian, Mormon).
The most remarkable thing about the media’s blind spot regarding voting behavior by religious affiliation is that this is likely the story of the 2016 election. In that story Evangelicals are no mystery. They will be voting as a majority for a Republican for president. Nones will be voting Democratic by a large majority (approximately 7 in 10). Although predictable, what makes the Nones so interesting is that they are growing and they are young. Will they turnout?
The most interesting group, arguably, is also the least predictable. It might be good to have data on an unpredictable group! Catholics will likely decide who wins the presidential election. They are the only major religious affiliation group which can “swing” from one party to the next in elections (for more see our analysis in OSV). They also have solid record predicting the winner of the popular vote. Every presidential candidate knows that it will be very difficult to win the presidency without a majority (or plurality if a 3rd candidate wins substantial votes) of Catholics. When will the media wake up and start tracking the Catholic vote? I have to thank the Pew Research Center for doing some of the first polling on this during this election season. I hope they continue to do so.
Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.
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