Overview

Already influential, secular voters will soon be the dominant voice in US elections.

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The overall voting patterns of secular voters are well known by now: it is a Democratic-leaning cohort. In every presidential election since 1980, nonreligious voters have supported Democratic Party candidates over Republican Party candidates.

The 2020 elections were not an exception. The 2020 National Exit Poll found that 65% of secular voters supported Joseph R. Biden, the Democratic Party candidate for president, and 31% voted for Donald J. Trump, the Republican incumbent. These figures are in line with previous years.

The AP/NORC Votecast, conducted jointly by the Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center, had similar findings. This large study polled over 100,000 voters during the 2020 election period (from early voting through Election Day). The AP/NORC Votecast data is also publicly available, and the vastness of the sample includes over 30,000 secular respondents. This allows us to break down secular voters in a more granular way that is not generally possible with the traditional exit poll.

Over the next few articles, I will dissect the secular vote ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. In the meantime, I want to focus on visualizing how unique the secular voting cohort is in the nation’s religious landscape.

I will begin by introducing some basic facts about the secular vote, showing how they voted in the 2020 presidential elections, how they compare to other cohorts, and how impactful the secular vote is in both major-party candidates’ coalitions. 

Looking at the voting data, it becomes apparent that secular voters occupy an important place in the culture war and that their role will become even more relevant in future elections.

The most Democratic-leaning religious cohort

Figure 1 shows how different religious cohorts voted in 2020. The data are sorted by their share of the Biden vote. Secular voters are in the leftmost position because they were the most Democratic-leaning. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of secular voters supported former Vice-President Biden in his bid for the White House. Only Jewish voters (69%) approached the secular cohort in their support for the Democratic candidate. Muslim voters (64%) and people who identified with other religions (“something else,” 61%)  were the other Democratic-leaning religious cohort. 

One cohort, Catholics, was nearly evenly divided in their support for the two major-party candidates. Half (50%) of Catholic voters supported Donald Trump in his reelection bid, while 49% voted for Biden. Meanwhile, the three remaining large cohorts in the analysis, all Christians, had Trump-supporting majorities. Fifty-seven percent of Christians who do not identify as born-again voted for Trump. More than two-thirds of born-again Christians (68%) and Mormons (71%) also supported Trump. 

In summary, all the cohorts that voted in their majority for Biden were not Christian, while all the cohorts that voted in their majority for Trump were Christian. 

The second-largest Democratic-leaning cohort

Three religious cohorts accounted for 86% of all the voters responding to the survey. Christian/Protestants account for 43%, essentially the size of Catholics (22%) and seculars (21%) combined. Christian adherents accounted for nearly two-thirds of voters (66%). In addition to the 65% combined share of Christian/other Protestants and Catholics, an additional 1% identified as Mormon.

The Christian/Non-Christian distribution of the vote is better visualized in Figure 2, which shows the religious distribution of the Biden and Trump coalitions. The red bars represent the three Christian-identifying groups that leaned toward Trump, and the blue bars the Biden-leaning non-Christian groups. Voters who identify with other religions (something else) are colored yellow because this category is a mismatch of different responses that may or may not have anything in common. 

(I was unable to calculate the proportion of born-again Christians in the party coalitions for this figure, as well for Figure 3, because the questionnaire had a peculiar way of asking this question. Instead of asking Protestants and other Christians if they also identified as “born-again or evangelical,” one-quarter of respondents were randomly assigned this question. This means that the survey includes non-Christian religious, Catholic, and secular respondents who identify as “born-again.” For the purpose of the analysis in Figure 1, I only consider “born-again” those who identify as Christian or Protestant.)

The three largest bars are those representing Christian/Protestants, Catholics, and seculars. As Figure 1 suggests, these three groups did not have the same impact on the candidates’ respective coalitions, given the skewed voting distribution for Trump among Christian voters.

Even though about 66% of voters identified as a Christian of sorts (Protestant/Other Christian, Catholic, or Mormon), eight-in-ten Trump voters (80%) were Christian. The majority of Christian-identifying Trump voters were Protestant/other Christian (54%), many of them born-again or evangelical. Nearly one-quarter (24%) identified as Catholic. Only 12% of Trump voters identified as secular. This means that secular Trump voters were outnumbered 4.5:1 by Protestant/Other Christians and 2:1 by Catholics. 

On the flip side, only 55% of Biden voters identified with a Christian group. While this proportion still represents a majority of his support, it is well below the national share: remember that two-thirds of voters identify as Christian. Instead, 45% of Biden’s voters were not Christian, with secular voters accounting for two-thirds of the non-Christian Biden voting cohort.

In Biden’s coalition, secular voters comprised the second-largest cohort (30%), not much smaller than the size of the largest cohort: Protestant/Other Christian (33%). The secular cohort is significantly larger than the third-largest cohort: Catholics (21%). However, secular voters should be expected to continue to increase as a share of the Democratic base as time goes by. A majority of Protestant/Other Christian Biden voters (61%) are over the age of 50 while 62% of secular Biden voters are under 50 years of age. Furthermore, 45% of secular Biden voters are under the age of 40, nearly twice the rate of Protestant/Other Christians (25%) and Catholics (26%). Moreover, even though Jewish and Muslim voters supported Biden at similar rates as secular voters, their impact on his coalition is not even close. The secular cohort (30%) is six times larger than the Jewish (4%) and Muslim (1%) cohorts combined.

At a time when white Christian nationalism has become a clear and present danger, as well as the unifying feature of the Republican Party, it is worth remembering two reasons this is happening. First, the country’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity has brought explicit white supremacy back to the mainstream. Second, the increasing secularization of the country over the last 15 years has them fearing a loss of status, not just because of the perceived diminishing returns of whiteness but also because their dominant religious views are no longer so dominant. 

It is in this political environment that the secular vote has developed. When we take those events into account it is not surprising then that secular voters not only are a Democratic-leaning religion voting cohort but also became the most Democratic-leaning religion voting cohort. 

The forces of secularization and white Christian nationalism in this regard become mutually reinforcing. As white Christian nationalism becomes entrenched in the Republican Party, secular voters look elsewhere. While the Democratic Party as an institution has not necessarily been particularly welcoming to secular voters, that is slowly improving, and it is not openly hostile to secularism as the current version of the GOP has become. 

Due to their status as the fastest-growing religion cohort, their sheer size, and their open discouragement from joining the GOP, secular voters are on their way to becoming the largest voting cohort inside the Democratic Party coalition. Secular voters were not only a major player in the Democratic coalition that helped elect President Joe Biden but are likely to become the most important group in future elections. Secular voters are much younger than voters from the largest religious cohorts in the Democratic coalition, an indication of more room for growth. 

Secular voters were not only a major player in the Democratic coalition that helped elect President Biden but are likely to become the most important group in future elections.

There are three recent events that make it likely that secular voters will continue supporting Democratic Party candidates in upcoming elections. The ongoing GOP-led onslaught against reproductive rights, blown wide open by the Dobbs decision issued during the Summer, is undoubtedly opposed by a secular cohort that has often polled as heavily pro-choice. The GOP-controlled Supreme Court also handed another decision that will rile up secular voters for years to come in their Kennedy ruling that substantially weakened the wall of separation between religion and government. Finally, the GOP’s attacks on LGBTQ people, especially transgender women, are likely to continue to turn secular voters against that party. Secular people are among the most ardent defenders of LGBTQ rights, and the secular cohort is disproportionately composed of LGBTQ people, who tend to be more secular than the general population (for good reason).

In the next installment, I will show how the secular vote is not behaving as some would say “like herding cats.” In many ways, the secular voter cohort is more coherent and unified than Christian cohorts.

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Juhem Navarro-Rivera

Dr. Juhem Navarro-Rivera is a political scientist, writer, public speaker, and research consultant. He is the Political Research director and Managing Partner at Socioanalitica Research, and a Senior Fellow...