Notional Christians: The Big Election Story in 2016

The 2016 presidential election cycle will long be remembered for the drama it created—including the social unrest that has taken place since Donald Trump was declared the winner. The Republican victory shocked millions of Americans, but millions more were elated by the outcome—one that surprised the mainstream media and political pundits alike.

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. This is the first of several summaries based on Barna Group’s election survey concerning the role that faith played in this historic political contest.

Strong Evangelical Turnout

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’s research shows that there were slight differences in turnout among the major faith segments it tracked. The highest turnout was among evangelicals, at 61 percent. That was slightly higher than occurred among both non-evangelical born again Christians (58%) and notional Christians (59%). 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%) and the no-faith group (57%).

Compared to the 2012 Barna Group election data, there were small but meaningful differences this time around. 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. As was also the pattern this year, people associated with non-Christian faiths were less likely to show up (48%) 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%).

When considering the absolute number of votes produced by each faith segment, the influence of each group changes substantially. Evangelicals provided 10 million votes; non-evangelical born again voters produced 33 million; and notional Christians delivered 58 million. Adults representing non-Christian faiths generated 7 million ballots cast, and the skeptic segment was responsible for 28 million votes.

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 decline in the number of votes cast is because the proportion of voting born again adults dropped from 37 percent to 31 percent.

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. 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.

Candidate Support

As was expected, the five faith segments had distinctly different candidate preferences.

Evangelicals emerged as one of Donald Trump’s most ardent bases of support. Nearly four out of five (79%) 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% to 47%).

Among the non-Christian groups, Clinton was the clear preference. When it comes to the voters who associated with a non-Christian faith, 71 percent selected her while only 20 percent backed Trump. Skeptics also preferred Clinton but by a smaller margin (60% to 27%).

While some media analysts have claimed that the evangelical vote for Trump was unusually large, the survey data do not support that claim. 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. 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.

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% to 40% result). 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.

While the media have made a big deal about the prolific level of evangelical support won by Trump, the real story may be elsewhere. Barna’s research indicates that perhaps the most significant faith group in relation to the Trump triumph was notional Christians. 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 Barna survey also revealed that Protestants gave Trump 58 percent of their votes and Clinton received only 36 percent. 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.

Last Two Months Turned It Around

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.

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 three-point increase in his lead).

Surprisingly, Trump’s biggest jump in support during the home stretch came from notional Christians. While that segment preferred Clinton by 12 points in September, they wound up siding with Trump by a two-point differential. That represents a 14-point gain in the final two months among the numerically-largest pool of religious voters.

Clinton finished strongly, in terms of total votes received, partially because of a huge rise in support among people aligned with non-Christian faiths. 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.

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.

Votes from Other Segments

The survey included an assessment of the voting behavior of several other segments that had some religious overtones. None of them were evenly divided in their preference: each group had a clear favorite in the race. Those groups, each determined by respondents classifying themselves as fitting the description in question, included the following:

  • 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%) as Clinton (29%).
  • Theological conservatives. Three out of ten people associated with this label, and they supported Trump by better than a 3-to-1 ratio (71% to 23%).
  • 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%) say they are advocates for the rights of that segment. They preferred Clinton by better than a 2-to-1 margin (63% to 28%).
  • Believe absolute moral truth exists. Half of all voters (52%) aligned with this concept. They also preferred Trump by a considerable margin (53% to 34%).
  • Support traditional moral values. Surprisingly, seven out of ten voters (71%) said they fit in this category. Most of them voted for Trump (53% versus 35%).

Christians Made the Difference

According to researcher George Barna, who is serving as a special analyst for the company’s 2016 election polling, the voting results show an unusual faith-related division. “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. 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 role of faith in this election was inescapable, the founder and former owner of the research company explains. “Think about all of the significant faith-driven events in the campaign. 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.

“The mainstream media got a lot of things wrong in this election regarding their assessment of the role of faith,” Barna continued. “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.”

Barna concludes by identifying a telling factor in the election. “There has been no discussion about the fact that the skeptic vote really kept Hillary Clinton in the race. 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.”

About the Research

This research was conducted by Barna Group using an online survey with a nationally representative sample of adults 18 and older. A total of 1,281 adults were interviewed, resulting in 1,134 registered voters participating in the survey. The survey was completed online in two waves, fielded from November 4 through 6, 2016, and then from November 9 through 16, 2016. The estimated maximum sampling error for the aggregate sample is plus or minus 4 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. The sampling error estimate is higher for subgroups within the total sample.

The study divided respondents into five unique faith segments based on their religious beliefs. The segments were defined as follows:

Evangelicals met nine specific theological criteria. They say they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today,” that their faith is very important in their life today; believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior; strongly believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; firmly believe that Satan exists; strongly believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; strong agree that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; strong assert that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent on church attendance, the denominational affiliation of the church attended or self-identification. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

Non-evangelical born again Christians say they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. However, they do not accept all of the remaining seven conditions that categorize someone as an evangelical.

Notional Christians are people who consider themselves to be Christian but they have not made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” or believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.

The Other faith segment refers to individuals who associate with a faith other than Christianity. Among the most common of those faith groups included within that segment were Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Skeptics are individuals who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, or who indicate that they do not believe in the existence of God or have no faith-related ties or interests.