The United States electorate — defined as those who are eligible to vote and registered to vote — changes some from year to year but changed significantly over the span of a few years.
A compilation of data from Pew Research Center shows the many ways the electorate has changed since the 2008 and 2016 presidential elections, including in religious identification.
While a majority (64%) of registered voters identify as Christian, that percentage is 15 points lower than it was in 2008. In that year when Barack Obama first was elected president, 79% of the electorate identified as Christian.
In the same 12-year span, the number of voters who identify as religiously unaffiliated has nearly doubled, from 15% to 28%.
Influence of white evangelicals
Despite their outsized influence on Republican politics in particular, white evangelical Protestants now account for only 18% of registered voters.
Most notably, the proportion of white Christians in the electorate has dropped. Despite their outsized influence on Republican politics in particular, white evangelical Protestants now account for only 18% of registered voters, down from 21% in 2008. While a 3-point drop may not seem significant, its effect comes into clearer focus when you consider the increasingly thin margins white evangelicals bring to elections.
An analysis by the Brookings Institution summarized: “Republicans are reliant on the group’s support and mobilization in order to accumulate 270 Electoral College votes.”
One exit survey during the 2016 election found white evangelicals comprised 46% of Donald Trump’s coalition. Even a small drop in the size of that available base makes a difference, especially in swing states.
It’s not just the evangelical base that is losing influence with white voters, but also the non-evangelical and Catholic base. During the same 12-year period from 2008 to 2020, the number of voters who are white non-evangelical Protestants fell from 19% to 13%, and the number of white Catholics fell from 17% to 12%.
Previous surveys have demonstrated that it is the combination of religious identity and race that makes white evangelicals, in particular, such a homogenous and reliable voting bloc.
Republican voters are much more likely than Democratic voters to identify as Christian, with 79% of Republican voters and 52% of Democratic voters identifying so. Democratic voters are more likely than Republican voters to identify as religiously unaffiliated (38% vs. 15%).
Other electoral changes
Religious identity is just one of several changes afoot with the American electorate. Here are some highlights:
- Party identification among registered voters hasn’t changed significantly over the past 25 years, but there have been some small shifts. The Democratic Party’s previous advantage over the Republican Party in voter identification has become smaller since 2017. Around a third of registered voters in the U.S. (34%) identify as independents, while 33% identify as Democrats and 29% identify as Republicans.
- White voters account for a smaller portion of registered voters than in the past, down from 85% in 1996 to 69% this year. This shift has affected both parties, although white voters consistently account for a larger share of Republican and Republican-leaning voters than of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters (81% vs. 59% as of 2019).
Nonwhites make up about 40% of Democratic voters but less than 20% of Republican voters.
- Put another way: Nonwhites make up about 40% of Democratic voters but less than 20% of Republican voters.
- However, white voters still account for a disproportionate share of the electorate in some battleground states compared to the national profile. For example, white voters account for 86% of the electorate in Wisconsin, 82% in Ohio, 81% in Pennsylvania and 79% in Michigan.
- On the other hand, white voters as a bloc fall below the national average in other key states: 58% in Nevada, 61% in Florida and 63% in Arizona. (See the Pew Center’s interactive map on racial changes by state here.)
- The electorate is aging nationally and in both parties. A majority of Republican voters and half of Democrats are age 50 and older. Nationally, 52% of registered voters are age 50 or older, up from 41% in 1996.
- Republicans tend to be older than Democrats. More than half of Republican and Republican-leaning voters (56%) are ages 50 and older, up from 39% in 1996. And among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters, half are 50 and older, up from 41% in 1996. The median age rose from 43 to 52 among Republican registered voters and from 45 to 49 among Democratic registered voters.
- At the same time, younger voters are coming into the electorate. This will be the first presidential election for many of Generation Z (born after 1996). One-in-10 eligible voters this year are members of Generation Z, up from 4% in 2016.
- Since 1996, the share of voters with college degrees has increased from 24% to 36%. Democratic voters are much more likely than Republican voters to hold college degrees (41% vs. 30%). That is a flip since 1996, when 27% of Republican voters had a college degree but only 22% of Democratic voters did.