Preliminary exit polling indicates that religious voters maintained many of the political allegiances they have kept for the past several decades — with one possible exception: white Catholics.
About two-thirds, or 68 percent, of voters who identify as Christian cast their ballots for President Donald Trump while 31 percent voted for Joe Biden, according to the latest numbers from Edison Research, which conducts a national exit poll for the news media.
Among white Protestant Christians, the latest updates to Edison's exit polls showed 73 percent supported Trump and 26 percent supported Biden. In keeping with pre-Election Day polling as well as 2016 data, the majority of white evangelical voters (76 percent) cast their ballots for Trump. An eight-day survey conducted by AP VoteCast that concluded as polls closed yielded similar findings, with results showing that 81 percent of white evangelical voters supported Trump.
But exit polling should always be viewed with caution: Before the close of the polls on Election Day 2016, exit polling data strongly suggested that Hillary Clinton would succeed President Barack Obama. Gathering data from voters, which in 2016 typically involved handing them a survey after they exited their polling place, was especially challenging in 2020 as states across the country held elections while exercising precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Natalie Jackson, director of research at Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a nonpartisan independent research group focusing on the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy, says pollsters have had time to implement technologies such as remote calling to capture insights from voters who chose to mail in ballots, drop off ballots, or participate in early in-person voting.
“It has forced everyone to be more fluid and adaptable in how they do their research and how they conduct polling,” Jackson said.
Edison Research began calling voters who cast in-person ballots in mid-October during early voting in eight battleground states. They also made use of remote calling to reach voters who submitted ballots by mail or via drop box. AP VoteCast conducted online and telephone surveys among more than 130,000 early and mail voters in all 50 states.
It might be awhile before we know definitively how religious voters cast their ballots. But one trend that pollsters are watching is declining white Catholic support for Trump.
In an early morning Nov. 4 tweet, PRRI founder Robert P. Jones said that preliminary numbers showed Biden faring better among white Catholics in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania than Clinton in 2016, citing PRRI data.
In an analysis of 2016 election exit poll data, Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of white Catholics voted for Trump. But in a 2020 voter survey conducted in early October, PRRI found that white Catholic support was down to 54 percent.
One explanation for this shift might be white Catholics’ concern about the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic. According to an October PRRI survey, 58 percent of white Catholics said that they consider health care and the pandemic among their top issue priorities. A majority of respondents in the September 2020 RealClear Opinion Research poll of more than 1,200 Catholic voters observed that the pandemic made them think differently about their faith.
“Trump pushed some more moderate white Catholics away by just how he handled the pandemic, the corruption, the tweets, the impeachment,” Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, told Sojourners.
Since April, Burge has been using the weekly Data For Progress COVID-19 tracking poll data to gauge white Catholic support. “Biden was an ideal candidate to pull [white Catholics] in, too,” he said. “He's a white, male, lifelong Catholic. He felt like a safe choice for many.”
Even if this trend holds in the final data, the question is whether the support is a permanent shift or a result of the Trump effect combined with a pandemic.
“I think it depends on where the GOP goes from here,” Burge said. “If their next nominee is in the same mold as Trump, I think that white Catholics may be reluctant to cast a ballot for that person. If it's a more moderate candidate, then they would be strongly backing that person.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story listed Natalie Jackson's last name incorrectly; we apologize for the error.