Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at Pew Research Center, discusses the role religion could play in the 2020 election.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I am Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Thank you all for joining us today.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, at CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel Religion and Foreign Policy.
We are delighted to have Alan Cooperman with us. Alan Cooperman is director of religion research at Pew Research Center. He is an expert on religion’s role in U.S. politics and has reported on religion in Russia, the Middle East, and Europe. Alan Cooperman plays a central role in planning Pew’s religion research agenda and writing its reports. Before joining Pew Research Center, he was a national reporter and editor at the Washington Post and a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and U.S. News and World Report. He is an author of the surveys Mormons in America, Muslim Americans, the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, “Nones” on the Rise, and A Portrait of Jewish Americans.
Alan, thank you very much for being with us today. I thought we could begin by having you talk a little about religion and politics and what you see—how you see religious demography changing in the United States and how that change will affect the results of the presidential election in November.
COOPERMAN: Great. So I’m at home, like many of you, and I’m in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much, Irina. And thank you to the Council and all the members on the line. I’m delighted to have a chance to talk with you and break some of my social isolation.
First, a quick caveat to note that the Pew Research Center, where I work, is not what’s known in the trade as a “horse-race pollster.” We don’t try to predict the outcome of presidential elections, and so I won’t be making those kinds of forecasts. We try to concentrate on understanding deeper dynamics of the electorate and the issues in each presidential and also in midterm campaigns.
So thinking about religion and politics, which is just a huge topic, let’s try to break it up a little bit And the first way that I’d suggest that we could think about it is if you think about religion in terms of religious affiliations, what group if any we identify with. And then, secondly, we can think about religion as religiosity, not what religion we are but how religious we are, and how that affects those choices.
So let’s start with the first, with religious affiliation, and quickly tackle some of the bigger religious groups in the country, and I’ll quickly outline what I think are some of the interesting questions about them in the 2020 election. We’ll start with “nones”—N-O-N-E-S—people who don’t identify with any organized religion. And as you know, the nones have been growing. They’re now probably upwards of a quarter of the total U.S. adult population, and they’ve also been growing as a share of the Democratic coalition. You know, in our polling back in 2000 only about 10 percent of registered Democrats were nones; that is, did not identify with any religious group. That rose to 12 percent in 2004, 18 percent in 2008, 24 percent in 2012, and 29 percent in 2016, by which point the nones were arguably the largest religious group in the Democratic coalition, outnumbering Catholics and about as numerous as all Democratic Protestants put together. And in the 2016 exit polls, which had some problems—and I can discuss the problems with the exit polls later—the nones voted Democratic by more than two to one: 67 percent Democratic, 25 percent Republican, 8 percent other.
And so the real question about the nones is not which way most of them will vote. The real question with the nones is how many of them will turn out, because while they’ve been rising as a share of the electorate they’re still punching below their weight. They’re still turning out at a lower share than they make up of the population. You could see this in the midterms. So they went from 11 percent in 2006 to 12 percent in 2010, 12 percent again 2014, and finally up to 17 percent—that’s a pretty good jump—in 2018. But that’s still eight points or more below their share of the population.
Almost by definition the nones are disconnected, right? We’re thinking of them, we’re defining them as not part of any religious group. They also skew young. And so the question is, is this a disconnected group in broader ways, not just religiously but also politically? Will they be energized to turn out as a greater share of the electorate and in growing portion to their share of the population?
On the other side of the political equation, kind of directly the polar opposite of the nones, is a group roughly the same size, white Evangelical Protestants. About a quarter of the adult population are white Evangelical Protestants if you use the simple definition of being racially white, identifying as Protestant, and self-describing as born again or Evangelical. And white Evangelicals do turn out in proportion to their share of the population. They made up 26 percent, for example, of the voters in the 2018 midterm elections. And as I think everybody knows, they vote strongly Republican, 81 percent in the problematic 2016 exit polls.
The two questions I always get about white Evangelicals are, A, aren’t they turned off by Donald Trump’s personal lack of religious piety? And, B, aren’t the younger ones, the Evangelicals in the Millennial generation, more liberal? And the simple answers to these questions are no and no.
The more complex answers are actually pretty interesting because we can see in some of our recent polling, which you can find at PewResearch.org, that quite a few Evangelicals do seem troubled by Trump’s personal behavior. You know, we asked in a February survey whether respondents like Donald Trump’s personal conduct as opposed to his political positions and we found that two-thirds of white Evangelical Protestants either said they don’t like his personal conduct—22 percent said that—or they had mixed feelings about it—44 percent said that. On the other hand, that was a lot more supportive than the overall public. In the public as a whole, 83 percent of respondents said they either didn’t like or had mixed feelings about the president’s personal conduct, and only 15 percent said they like it. We also found that white Evangelicals overwhelmingly feel that, quote, “the president fights for what I believe in,” unquote, and that his administration has helped the interests of Evangelical Christians. So I’m not sure we’ve cracked the code on this entirely and can completely explain the reasons for continuing strong Evangelical support of Donald Trump, but the poll suggests some of the factors.
Now, when it comes younger Evangelicals, what we can see in our polling in recent years is that they are more liberal on at least one issue, which is same-sex marriage, but overall they’re just as conservative as older Evangelicals on other issues, particularly abortion, and they are just as likely as older Evangelicals to identify as Republicans or to say they lean toward the Republican Party.
Flipping back to the Democratic column, black Protestants are similar in their levels of religiosity and in their theological beliefs with white Evangelicals, but politically they couldn’t be more different. According to the 2016 exit polls they went 90 percent for Hillary Clinton, the most lopsided of any major religious group in the United States. The question, then, with black Evangelicals, as with nones, is turnout. You know, historically, until the two Obama elections, African Americans voted at less than their share of the overall U.S. population, I think for reasons we all understand including the history of voter suppression. Will they turn out for the Democratic candidate in 2020, and at or above their share of the population? That’s an open question. Again, I’m not here to make predictions. You’ve seen the same results in the primaries that I have. It appears that African American Democrats have been a bulwark of Joe Biden’s support, assuming Biden becomes the Democratic nominee.
Now, if Biden were elected, he would of course be only the second Catholic president in U.S. history after John Kennedy. I think there naturally then arises about Biden the question of whether he will get disproportionate support from Catholics, and particularly white Catholics because white Catholics have been trending more Republican in recent years. In the 2016 exit polls they voted 61 percent for Donald Trump, while Hispanic Catholics went the other way; they were at two-thirds for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The last group I’ll mention just quickly are Jews. I’m often asked whether American Jews are gradually moving into the Republican column. I, frankly, don’t see it in our polling, which shows that roughly two-thirds of U.S. Jews identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, and that’s been steady all the way back to the 1990s. On the other hand, it’s not a crazy question, you know, mainly because of compositional change among Jews, the rising share of Jews who are Orthodox because of high birthrates in the Orthodox community. And we know from our 2013 national study of U.S. Jews that while Jews overall tilt strongly towards the Democratic Party, a majority of Orthodox Jews favor Republicans.
And another thing interesting to note is that at least in the early primary polling Jews as a whole did not leap for either of the Jewish Democratic candidates at that time, either Mike Bloomberg or Bernie Sanders. In the early primaries our polling showed Jews split among the Democratic candidates, with most of their support going to Biden, Warren, and Buttigieg.
That’s a quick tour of the major religious groups.
When you think about the second element of religion in politics, which is not religious affiliation but religiosity—how religious are people—there’s a clear pattern that we’ve seen historically, and it is basically that the more religious people are in conventional ways, as measured by things like how often they say they pray, how often they say they go to religious services, and how important they say religion is in their lives, if you look at that spectrum people who are higher in religiosity tend to be more politically conservative and to vote more Republican, and people who are lower in religiosity tend to be more Democratic-leaning.
The really interesting fillet on that, however, is that that overall relationship is really a result of relationships among white Americans, and these relationships don’t hold among nonwhite Americans. So among white Americans it is really clear and very strong—I wish I could show you these charts—but you see overwhelmingly that people who are highly religious lean strongly Republican as a whole among whites, and those who self-describe in various ways as not particularly religious lean strongly Democratic. But when you separate out and look at racial and ethnic minorities—most notably African Americans but also Hispanics, Asians, and so on—if you look at nonwhites as a whole, that just doesn’t hold. Nonwhites as a whole at all levels of religiosity—high, medium, and low—tend to lean Democratic and to lean Democratic in roughly equal proportions. So I think that that’s a really interesting difference between white and nonwhite voters in the United States to use those kind of gross categories.
And the last thing is that when we think about religion in our own lives—I’ll just speak for myself. It would be very difficult for me to tell you to what extent my choices as a voter or my views on political issues, my views on life in general, are determined by my gender, my age, my education, the region where I live, my religion, all the other characteristics—demographic and attitudinal characteristics that I might know or think I know about myself. I just can’t tell you what’s more important and what’s less important.
But surveys give us statistics that allow us to do something really interesting, and that’s to take what we know about an entire population, including all their demographic characteristics and their political views, and to use statistical analysis to, in fact, see what are the correlations. And using multivariant regression analysis we can look at this and we can essentially ask ourselves the question: If we knew just one thing about somebody, what would give us the best chance of predicting how they vote in presidential elections?
We did that in a kind of, well, to use a fancy term, dichotomous, variable way. We said we know whether someone is highly religious—that is, whether they attend religious services often—or not very religious—they attend only a few times a year or less. We know whether they live in the South or some other part of the country. And we know if they’re male or female. Whether they have an income of $100,000 a year or more or an income of $50,000 a year or less. We know whether they’re a college graduate or have less than a high-school education. We know whether they live in a rural area or an urban area. And we know whether they’re under the age of thirty of over the age of sixty-five. And we know whether they’re white, black, or Hispanic. And if you could see only one of these things at a time and we hold everything else constant, which we can do in a statistical way, which of these things would give us the best predictor of how they vote? And we’ve done this with both microdata from the 2008 election, presidential election, and more recently with data from the 2016 exit polls. And in those cases, I tell you that the single best predictor of how Americans vote, if you control for everything else and look only at these demographic characteristics I talked about, race and ethnicity are the best single predictor. If you know whether someone is African American, Hispanic, or white, you have a pretty good chance, right, based on that of predicting how they’re going to vote.
But the second-best predictor is how often they say they attend religious services. And it’s a better predictor than whether they live in an urban area or a rural area, whether they’re male or female, whether they have a college education or no college education, whether they have $100,000 in income or less than 50,000 (dollars), and so on, or age. It’s a better predictor than any of those other demographic variables, indicating to me that religion continues, in ways that are in some ways mysterious and in some ways really quite evident to us, to have a significant impact on the way that Americans behave in the polling booth.
And with that, I’ll turn it back over to you, Irina, and hope that there are some good questions.
FASKIANOS: Alan, thank you very much for that overview. Let’s open it up now to the group for their questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we will open the floor for questions.
The first question will come from Vineet Sharma with Hindu American Foundation. Please go ahead.
SHARMA: Hi, Mr. Cooperman. Thank you for that interesting discussion about ethnic identity and its role in American politics.
My question is about the increasing anti-Semitism and anti-Hindu phobia that was apparent in the political left in the United Kingdom and also in the United States. We saw it with Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. We saw it in the Democratic primary with Tulsi Gabbard. She’s spoken about it publicly now. The DNC and the media, you know, did not just disagree with Tulsi Gabbard’s policy, but actively tried to cancel her candidacy. You know, she is a congresswoman, a veteran, a woman of color, yet her presentation in the left media was unfair, according to her also.
And it’s interesting to note that besides the Evangelical support for Trump, there are hidden issues with may be below the radar of pollsters. For example, Trump has successfully reached out with his policies to American Jews and American Hindus. And anecdotally speaking, the Democrats have lost a lot of support or some support among Hindu Americans and Jewish Americans, and this could mean a loss of tens of thousands of votes in critical states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and in a close election that could be significant.
So it seems like the political left believes that it is incapable of bigotry, but that was clearly not the case in the U.K. with the Labour Party. Can you comment on the increasing anti-Semitism and Hinduphobia in the political left in the U.K. and the U.S.? And have you studied this phenomena? Thank you.
COOPERMAN: Well, that’s a tough question. The first thing I’d say is that I really don’t have data on anti-Hindu sentiments in the United States. It’s not something that we’ve been able to measure. And I don’t feel competent to characterize the left versus the right in terms of where anti-Semitism is coming from. I certainly see commentary that suggest that elements of anti-Semitism are present on both the left and the right. But I will say in terms of anti-Semitism, we’ve done more, frankly, with anti-Semitism in terms of measurement in the U.S. than Hinduphobia, as you put it. Although we’ve done as much with Islamophobia, actually. We’ve done a lot of attempts to measure Islamophobia ever since 9/11, of course, in the United States.
And one of is that public opinion toward religious groups is a very different thing from the actions of individuals, particularly violent actions of individuals. I think, for example, I guess you could think of it as an irony or at least a paradox, is that in the United States public attitudes toward American Jews are extremely positive, on the whole. And in our polling, we don’t see any diminishment of that. In other words, we ask people using something like a feeling thermometer to rate American Jews and other religious groups. Jews get high positive, warm ratings. And we haven’t seen those go down at all.
At the same time, that everyone living in America is aware of the shootings in Pittsburgh, and in Poway, and other incidents of violent anti-Semitism, which clearly are on the rise and are picked up in things like FBI hate crimes reports. So I guess what I would say is that it’s entirely possible, and may be the case that the American public is no more antisemitic—and in fact, possibly as well no more anti-Islamic, no more Hinduphobic—than it was a few years or more ago. And yet, the incidence of hatred and bigotry toward particular religious groups could be rising because that’s that’s not reflecting the public opinion as a whole. That’s reflecting the actions of a few—relatively few, we hope—individuals who may, for one reason or another, feel more empowered, more free, to act in the political climate.
So I’m not denying that there’s a political element to it, potentially. But I’m saying that I’m someone who measures public opinion, primarily. And I really don’t pick these things up in public opinion. Again, with Islamophobia or anti-Muslim attitudes, they’re certainly present and you can pick them up in public attitudes. But I don’t see them—I don’t see sharp rises in them. I hope that—
SHARMA: Yeah. I guess just briefly, if I could comment, in the U.K. I think in the last election, the Labour Party, which is similar to the Democratic Party, it lost significant votes for the Hindu and the Jewish population in England. But, again, I don’t have the data. And I was just wondering if we were going to see a similar phenomena. Now, the numbers are small. There’s six million Jews in America, three million Hindus. But still, in a place like Cleveland, Michigan, Detroit, where, you know, states were decided by ten, twenty thousand votes. I wonder if this is worth studying. But thank you.
COOPERMAN: It’s a great question. I don’t have any prediction on that. Again, it’s not my role to try to predict how groups are going to go. I can tell you historically how they’ve voted. I can tell you what the polling is showing at the moment. The polling at the moment is showing Jews are strongly Democratic leaning on the whole, as they have been in recent years. No change on that. And the polling is not picking up enough— Hindus are about 1 percent or less of the U.S. population. So in standard polls, we just don’t get enough Hindus to be able to measure where they are on these things. We have to aggregate a lot of polls over time. And so I’m afraid, just honestly speaking, I don’t have good data on where American Hindus are politically today versus a few months or a year or two ago.
SHARMA: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from James Gilchrist from Carnegie Mellon University. Please go ahead. Please make sure your phone is not on mute, sir. Please go ahead with your question.
GILCHRIST: OK. Thank you very much. I teach history and religion at Carnegie Mellon. And I follow your work and I appreciate it very much.
My concern is, when you depict religiosity as how religious people are, that’s always struck me a bit misleading. I don’t doubt that there’s something called religiosity which is captured in the survey questions that you ask, and that that thing which is captured correlates with political conservativism. That’s very clear. My concern is when that gets translated as how religious one is, well, that seems to me to be in conflict with some very strong Biblical themes.
The Hebrew prophets, for example, Isaiah, why do we pray and fast, but you don’t hear us? It’s because you don’t take care of the poor, and feed the hungry, and so forth. Amos says I hate, I despise your solemn assemblies. Let justice rule down and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream—the famous text that Martin Luther King used. Micah says: What does the lord require? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. Jesus’ antagonists in the New Testament are mostly the religious people.
So my concern is, and I’d appreciate your response to it, no doubt what you’re calling religiosity correlates with political conservatism. That’s very clear. But from a Biblical perspective, if religiosity were to be equated with faithfulness to God, that would make Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and arguably Jesus not very religious. So I wonder if you could speak to that, the difference between religiosity as measured by the parameters that you cite, versus what, it seems to me from a Biblical perspective, faithfulness to God looks like.
COOPERMAN: That is an awesomely wonderful question. And thank you very much for it. And I hope that in my brief introductory remarks I said something to the effect of religiosity as conventionally measured by measures such as this, that, and the other. And you know, there are a fair number of those measures. I’m speaking in this sense as a very practical pollster, somebody’s who’s trying to measure religion. And you know, I think the wonderment of it is that religion is not a practical thing. Religion is about communities, and it’s about faith, and it’s about ideas, it’s about morals. And a lot of religion is ethereal or ineffable. And yet, what I’m trying to do, my colleagues and I, and we’re not alone, is to study it in a pragmatic way and in a transparent way.
And all I can do is be transparent and pragmatic and say: You’re absolutely right. The measures we use, self-reports of how important religion is in someone’s life, for example—what we call religious salience—that doesn’t really tell us whether the person is a good person or a bad person. I wrote—or, faithful to a particular view of the Bible and understanding of traditional Abrahamic religions, and the morals that they’ve taught. Yeah. So it’s a really good question. Important distinction. When I speak about someone being more religious, I don’t mean to connote any approbation or disapprobation of that, by the way. Higher religiosity, to me, does not mean the person’s a better person. It means, in a practical sense, that they say that they’re more religious, that they do some classically religious things in an Abrahamic tradition.
When we do this—when we do these sorts of measures outside of the United States, in places with different religious traditions, we can’t use those measures at all. You know, how often someone attends religious services or how often they pray is not even a good measure of conventional religiosity in a place like Asia. So these are also culturally dependent measures. And I could go on. But thank you for pointing out in a way that that these measures are not normative, and don’t necessarily correlate with people’s practical behavior toward their neighbors, or even their families, or their communities.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Melissa Mathis with the United States Coast Guard Academy. Please go ahead.
MATHIS: Hi. Thank you. I wanted to ask if you could preview for us a bit how you might be measuring the coronavirus in terms of church authority? That is, I know you did that survey at the end of December with all the sermons, and since there’s been this surge of online kind of Christianity, holding masses and different services, and also giving advice on the coronavirus. I’m just wondered what’s kind of in the queue for how to measure the relationship between the church and its authority around corona?
COOPERMAN: Thank you. That’s also a wonderful question. And yes, we are attempting to do this. We have some ability to do some fairly quick turnaround polling using our American trends panel, which is a group of 13,000-plus Americans who have been impaneled. On the back of it is through either address-based samples or telephone samples. So it’s not an opt-in panel. It’s a probability panel of the American public. And we have some polling. I think, indeed, if you keep an eye on our website every week—and I think I’m hopeful next week—we have asked some questions, and I hope we’ll have some results about things like are people to—physically going to religious services less often? And in response to the COVID or coronavirus? And are they tuning into services electronically or on TV as a result of that more often? And I think we will have some results on that, we don’t have all the data in yet. We’re still analyzing these sorts of things.
So far the interesting thing with coronavirus that I can see is that attitudes toward coronavirus seem to mirror the political polarization that we have one so many different issues. So what I mean by that is that religious groups that lean Republican tend to approve of the administration’s handling of the coronavirus, and those that lean democratic tend to disapprove of the administration’s handling of the coronavirus. And so in that sense the coronavirus is mirroring or reflecting the preexisting political tendencies and polarizations, as far as I can see. And I can’t think of a way that the coronavirus is evidently affecting kind of the religion and politics as we’ve been talking about it today, and its role in the election.
But it certainly is possible that the virus and the measures that we’re all taking to try to limit its spread, could have a longstanding impact on institutional religion in the United States. And primarily in,at least in the way that you just suggested, because lots of people anecdotally, and maybe we’ll have data on this soon, do seem to be turning to alternative ways of finding and being with their religious communities—namely, electronically. And there’s yet another thing that I think is really interesting. And that’s the possibility that the coronavirus could result in an overall bump in—and again, I’ll use that problematic word—religiosity in the American public.
And the reason I say that is that both as a matter of theory and as a matter of pragmatic measurement, there does seem to be a relationship between religion, its role in people’s lives, and the degree of insecurity—particularly existential insecurity—that people feel. This is the theory that the academics Inglehart and Norris have written about. And you can look up their work and see the kind of secularization theory. And the basic notion is that the more existential insecurity that societies feel, the more religious they are. That’s a very kind of a theoretical level.
On a more practical level, some years back in New Zealand there was an earthquake that took place in between two waves of the national survey that included some questions about religion. And what one could see in the data afterward, it was kind of a very clean, almost natural experiment. Not something one would ever be able to artificially—or, want to artificially be able to produce. But it showed that the earthquake—in the areas affected by the earthquake there were higher levels of religious identity and behavior reported by people than in those same areas immediately before the earthquake.
And I think the coronavirus potentially, at least, being such a massive event in our society, and frankly filling so many people with dread, with existential dread, with reminders of mortality and fears for their safe and the safety of their families and others, may well drive more people to pray, more people to engage in religious practices, even if they’re not necessarily going to religious services because they’re staying away so as not to spread the virus. And how lasting a bump that might be is very much an open question, but it’s the kind of the thing that my colleagues and I are really keen to try to measure and we’ve been talking about a lot. Thinking about it a lot. And I think it’s something we’ll be working on possibly not just for weeks or months, but for years to come.
[NOTE: A new Pew Research Center survey published March 30 finds that 55% of U.S. adults say they have prayed for an end to the coronavirus outbreak. In addition, 40% of Americans who reported in the past that they regularly attend religious services now say they have replaced in-person attendance with virtual worship, going less often but watching services online or on television instead, according to the survey. Read the rest of the results of the survey here:
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from John Campbell with CFR. Please go ahead.
CAMPBELL: Thank you very much. And thank you for your tour de raison of the major religious groups in the United States. I notice, however, that you did not mention what used to be called the mainstream Protestant denomination, the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Quakers, Lutherans, and so forth. Now, it is true that some of them would self-define as Evangelical. But I suspect most would not. Do you see anything distinctive about their political behavior?
COOPERMAN: Thank you. That’s a very good question. And thank you for pointing that out. And there’s a couple of issues there just in terms of measurement that I should try to be candid about. One is that the term “mainline Protestants” is widely known in the academy and among certain kinds of cognoscenti, the kind of people perhaps who are on this call. But in the general public, we found that the term “mainline Protestant” is a complicated term and many people don’t know exactly what it refers to.
And so in polling we actually end up having to look sometimes—unless we’re doing our very sophisticated kinds of polls where we’re asking people a whole lot of questions about their particular religious affiliation and then we’re placing them into denominational buckets. We can do that, and with some of our major surveys we do. But in our kind of more routine political surveys we simply have to ask the born again or Evangelical question. And then we end up defining Protestants as either one of three categories: Black Protestants, by resorting to a racial categorization; Evangelical Protestants, by using the born again or Evangelical question; and non-Evangelical Protestants, which, again, is problematic in all kinds of ways.
So one reason why I avoid talking about it is just that in some ways when it comes to politics we don’t always have great measures of the mainline Protestant denominations. But having said that, there are a few things I can tell you. You know, and one is that, as you know, the mainline has been declining as a share of U.S. population. By the way, Evangelical Protestants are also declining as a share of the overall population, though they’re maintaining or perhaps even growing as a share of all Protestants because the decline is steeper in the mainline. But it’s sometimes falsely asserting that Evangelical Protestants are growing as a share of the U.S. population. And that’s actually not what we see in our data.
The white mainline, though, is declining. And just looking—I’ve got a chart in front of me—the Democratic coalition. And you go back to 1996, and the mainline is almost a quarter of all Democrats. And in fact, it was the largest religious group among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters. It went from 24 percent in 1996 to 21 percent in 2000, to 19 percent in 2004, 17 percent in 2008, 14 percent in 2012, and 11 percent 2016. So it’s been cut more than in half as a proportion of all Democratic voters. And of course, 11 percent is still an important percentage of Democratic voters. And I don’t mean to deny in any way the importance of the mainline, either theologically or in their role in American religion, or their role in American politics. But they are a declining share of the Democratic coalition, declining share of the overall public.
When we look at, again, some of the overall relationships that I talked about, we see that white Catholics, white mainline Protestants, and white Evangelicals—all the times I’m emphasizing specifically their racial category—all of those groups today lean Republican. When we look at these groups and bring in people of color, then it’s a much more mixed picture. Catholics as a whole, white—mainline as a whole become much more mixed. Not strongly leaning Republican. And so you forgive me the resort to race here, because it’s not a theological issue. It’s a very practical distinction that’s powerful, frankly, in America politics.
OPERATOR: OK. Thank you. Let’s go ahead and take the next question. The next question will come from Eleanor Ellsworth with the Episcopal Church. Please go ahead.
ELLSWORTH: Hi. Good afternoon. You mentioned, rightly of course, that were Biden to be elected president he’d be the second Catholic president since Kennedy. What work have you all done to date, or any study that you can share with us, about the Catholic factor in modern elections? This election that’s coming up would be very helpful to hear about. Thank you.
COOPERMAN: Thank you. That’s a really good question. And frankly, as my colleagues and I have thought about it over the years, we’ve increasingly tried to move away from talking about a Catholic vote. Catholics are very far from a monolithic bloc of American voters. They’re a very large bloc of American voters, something in the neighborhood of 20 percent or so of the electorate. And some pollsters even joke, and I hope you’ll appreciate I’m saying this tongue in cheek, but we Americans could save a lot of money on our elections if we allowed only Catholics to vote, because Catholics as a whole are a wonderful bellwether for the country as a whole. And as Catholics go, generally speaking so goes the—at least he popular vote in the election. We’re not going to get into the whole issues of the electoral college and how that can distort things or change things.
But so Catholics as a whole, you know, being 20 percent of the electorate, it’s almost misleading to think about it as one group. There’s a few different ways to break Catholics up that I personally find illuminating. The first I’ve already mentioned, and that’s a resort to race and ethnicity. White Catholics lean Republican. And, interestingly, have been leaning more Republican in recent years. If you go back over the last five or six elections, you’ll see steadily rising share of white Catholics voting Republican. Hispanic Catholics who, as you know, are a rising share of all Catholics, Hispanic Catholics lean strongly Democratic. And you know, like, two-thirds or more Democratic. And that’s been consistent. I’m not sure that I could make a case that they’re becoming more Democratic. They’ve just been solidly, consistently Democratic over time.
Another way to divide up Catholics is by the standard measures of religiosity or religious behavior. And, of course, a classic one to simply use is to look at Catholics who say they go to mass on a regular, say, weekly basis, or more, and those who go infrequently. Those two groups also look rather different. They look different on a whole bunch of particular issues—things like same-sex marriage, and abortion, and other kinds of maybe hot-button issues. But they also look generally different in their overall political orientation, just probably in the way that exactly you would expect, especially among white Catholics. Those who attend, or say they attend regularly, are more Republican leaning than those who say they attend less frequently.
You know, back in the John Kennedy in the era and even going back before that, you know, with Alf Landon, et cetera there was a notion that a Catholic candidate would mobilize the Catholic vote. We didn’t see that happen with John Kerry. And one could go back and think about all kinds of things that the Kerry campaign might have done differently and why that played out the way it did. I think it’s very much an open question as to whether if Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee he will get a larger share particularly of white Catholics than previous Democratic nominees did. Again, I say it’s an open question. I’m by no means saying he won’t, but I don’t think that it’s some sort of a walk that he will.
And again, I’ll note, you know, similarly, actually, Jewish voters— there was a time when back in the Joe Lieberman era there was a feeling that, well, if a Jewish candidate ran for president—a viable Jewish candidate, that Jews had, you know, whatever reasons—pride, sentiment, whatever, familiarity—would flock to that candidate. But actually, in the Democratic primary this year when both Mike Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders were viable candidates—I guess most people would consider that they were viable at least for a period of time—we didn’t see Jewish voters, Democratic voters, flocking to either of them. In fact, Warren and Buttigieg, and particularly Biden continued to get more support among Jewish voters.
So it may be simply that we’re at a place in American life where major religious groups are no longer—that there isn’t so much related—(inaudible)—than they used to. Now, that could be very different for some of the smaller religious groups that are still primarily foreign born. So we had an earlier call where we asked about Hindu Americans. You know, I don’t know whether if Tulsi Gabbard or some other Hindu candidate were to be, you know, a Democratic nominee, you might well see that kind of native son, native daughter relationship. But I guess, again, I’m just going to say I think it’s an open question as to whether we’ll see that with Joe Biden and Catholics this time around. It’ll be a very, very interesting thing to watch.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Shaik Ubaid with Muslim Peace Coalition. Please go ahead.
UBAID: Thank you for such an informative talk. And I have a two-part question. And before that, thank you also for answering that question about Hinduphobia. When you are taking surveys, do you differentiate between anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli stance? And similarly, anti-Hindu supremacism, which is akin to Nazism and ruling India, versus Hinduphobia? That was one question. The other thing is, when you’re talking about why the evangelists vote for Trump even though they may not agree with his personal lifestyle, do you also take into consideration the negatives reasons for both Evangelicals, that they think Trump’s presidency and his Israeli policy will lead to the establishment of the second coming of Christ, or the destruction of Israel and Jews, and also the Hindu extremists who support Trump just because he is banning the Muslims from coming here. So do take those? Those are my two questions.
COOPERMAN: Well, thank you for those good and difficult questions. The simple answer on the first one is no, the Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan, nonadvocacy research center. And so we don’t define what anti-Semitism is or anti-Israeli sentiment. We do ask questions about public attitudes toward Israel on occasion. We don’t do a lot on that subject, but we’ve asked some questions about it. And most recently we asked some questions that differentiated between attitudes toward the Israeli government and attitudes toward the Israeli people. And we asked sort of parallel questions in the U.S. public about attitudes toward Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people. Because that’s also an area in which potentially people may not be sure how to answer a question when they’re being asked about Israel or they’re being asked about Palestine. What are they really asking? Are we asking about the people? Are we asking about the government? Et cetera.
And so we asked those sorts of questions. And we also asked questions about attitudes toward American Jews. When I spoke about anti-Semitism, what I was speaking about—as I mentioned just briefly—is particularly something we call a feeling thermometer. And it’s a bit of a hokey question, but it does kind of work in a polling way, is people seem to answer it and provide data that’s consistent over time, and that’s internally kind of makes sense. And on the feeling thermometer we have asked people to tell us how warmly or coldly they feel toward various religious groups on a scale of zero to 100. And so we can tell you that, based on this measure in the U.S. public as a whole, that there are generally warm attitudes towards Jews, warm attitudes towards Catholics, warm attitudes towards non-Evangelical or mainline Protestants. There are cooler attitudes towards some other groups. And actually overall kind of cold—not freezing—but less than fifty-degree attitudes towards atheists and towards Muslims.
And so I don’t know exactly—we don’t characterize those as measures of Islamophobia or whatever we’ll call it, anti-atheist sentiment. But they are what they are. And they’re relative. And so you can see the degree to which they vary from group to group. And you can also see which groups or which types of people rate others negatively. So you’ll find, for example, on the feeling thermometer, we can see that Mormons tend to have fairly cold attitudes toward Evangelicals and Evangelicals fairly cold attitudes towards Mormons. And that’s what I mean by some types of internal consistency on some of these measures.
But, again, we don’t characterize them, and we don’t try to differentiate as to, say, anti-Semitism from the left or the right, or to try to draw fine lines, or any kind of lines, frankly, between attitudes toward Israel and attitudes towards Jews. We do ask separate types of questions, and we leave it up to our individual readers and users of our data to try to make the assessments they want to make.
Yes, and your second question. Boy, I droned on so long on that first one I can’t even remember what your second question was now.
UBAID: Yes. The second question was that you take into consideration the negative reasons for the Hindu extremists voting for Trump because of his anti-Muslim, and Evangelists voting for Trump because he will lead to the second coming of Christ, and destruction of Israel, and everything else. And I ask for that question because Tulsi Gabbard, people are opposed to Tulsi Gabbard not because she is Hindu, but because of her close ties with the Hindu fascist movement that is ruling India, which killed Gandhi, and which is a supremacist movement.
COOPERMAN: Yeah. No, the basic simple answer is no. We don’t have measures that would tell us why people might say they hold negative attitudes toward particular religious groups. And I would just say, as a general practice, I would be a little bit skeptical about that. People can give all kinds of rationalizations for what what they say. And I think we all have to be aware that what people say isn’t necessarily what they think or what they do. And when I’m asked to speak about some of these issues, I try to say first and foremost that I don’t think, honestly, that public opinion polling provides the best possible measures of these things.
If I were interested in understanding, for example, anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim sentiment or activity in the United States, the first and foremost thing I’d want to know is how many violent incidents are taking place. How many kinds of forms of discrimination that might not be violent, but are nonetheless impactful are taking place? I’d want those kinds of statistics. Those are more important to me, as a reader, than where public opinion is. And they aren’t necessarily the same, as I pointed out earlier. So I just think we should be aware of the limits of what polling can tell us. It doesn’t tell us what people harbor in their hearts. It doesn’t tell us the deeper reasons that they hold. And it doesn’t tell us the pretext or reasons they might give for expression negative attitudes toward a religious group, or a racial group, or an ethnic group.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. We’ll take one last question.
OPERATOR: The final question will come from Ralston Deffenbaugh with Lutheran World Federation. Please go ahead with your question.
DEFFENBAUGH: Thanks very much for you and your Pew colleagues for all of your analysis.
The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies are not consistent with Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger. And I’m wondering is what impact that’s had on the views of white Evangelicals.
COOPERMAN: Yeah. So that’s similar to the question I got earlier. And I think it’s a fair question in the sense that what you’re raising is the difference between various kinds of ethical religious messages taught by the major religions and the prudential political judgements that religious groups and individuals make. And again, as I said earlier, I don’t think we’ve completely cracked the code on everything that white Evangelicals as a whole, or also not a monolithic group. There’s clearly differences among white Evangelicals. There are Democratic-leaning white Evangelicals. There are white Evangelicals who are strongly disapproving of Donald Trump and, in particular, of his policies and his administration’s actions toward immigrants.
I think what we see in our polling, and that we’ve tried to untangle a little bit, is that white Evangelical Protestants, in fairly sizable numbers—maybe not majorities, but certainly substantial minorities—tell us that they harbor various kinds of doubts or dislike of elements of Donald Trump’s behavior. And we can see that. It’s up on our website. And when you look at these numbers and you see the share of white Evangelicals who say, for example, that they think the term “morally upstanding” applies to Donald Trump. And it’s actually a fairly small percentage who say that that term applies very well to Donald Trump. So I think you can see—and that’s just one example of a measure. You know, another is how well does the term “honest” describe Donald Trump? And 23 percent of white Evangelical Protestants say the term “honest” describes Donald Trump very well, but 46 percent say fairly well, and 29 percent say not too or not at all well. So you know, to me at least these measures indicate that many Evangelicals have mixed feelings at best about some elements of Donald Trump’s behavior or some of his policies.
So, nonetheless, why do we see consistently in our polling and in the exit polls in the 2016 election, the exit polls indicating 81 percent of Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump? The same kinds of things were true and apparent back then. And why do we see Evangelical support remain so strong for Donald Trump?
And the other side of the coin that we can see in the polling is that many white Evangelical Protestants feel that Donald Trump fights for what they believe in, fights for their religious beliefs, stands up for Evangelicals. Many, many also say that he’s helped the interests of Evangelical Christians—actually, a majority, 59 percent, feel that the Trump administration has helped the interests of Evangelical Christians. Thirty-two percent say he’s not made much difference. Only 7 percent think that he’s hurt the interests of Evangelical Christians. If you look at other religious groups, such as Jews and Muslims, you’ll see many, many more who feel that the Trump administration has actually hurt the interests of their group.
And on the issues, the various issues, Evangelical Protestants say, many of them, that they agree with Donald Trump on all or nearly all issues. Forty-one percent of white Evangelical Protestants say they agree with Donald Trump on all or nearly all issues.
You’re as aware as I am that there are Evangelical leaders who have excoriated their flocks on some of these issues, particularly migration and care for the stranger. But in the polling, at least, Evangelical support for Trump is strong, and to me it’s explicable. I mean, I think that these questions go a long way to explaining what’s going on. Maybe they don’t do that for you. And we’ll keep on trying.
FASKIANOS: Alan Cooperman, thank you very much for taking his hour to be with us. We really appreciate it. We will look for your next survey report, but we appreciate your continuing analysis on these issues. So thank you.
Thanks to all of you. Again, you can follow Alan’s work on religious demography at the Pew Research Center. We also have on our website, CFR.org, a whole host of election 2020 resources to help think about the issues, as well as resources on COVID-19, so I direct you all there. Please follow CFR Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming conference calls. And also send us an email at [email protected] with any suggestions on future calls or events. Thank you all again for today, and we look forward to your participation in future discussions.
COOPERMAN: Thank you, Irina. And thank you all for the tough and smart questions.