How do race and religion predict Americans’ voting intentions for the 2016 presidential election?

American politics are deeply divided and have become increasingly so in recent decades.22 Partisan antipathy is higher than in recent years, and compromise seems elusive. Congressional standoffs have resulted in paralyzing gridlock, including the extended government shutdown in 2013, the first of its kind in 18 years. The partisan divide is also, in part, occurring along racial and religious lines.23

Figure 5.1Likelihood of voting Republican in 2016, by religious tradition (all)

The 2012 election is a good case study. In 2012 President Barack Obama won the popular vote by a modest margin over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, 50 percent to 48 percent.24 But the raw percentages don’t tell much of the story. While Romney carried white voters by a 20-percentage-point margin (59 to 39 percent), President Obama was the favorite among over 70 percent of Asian and Latino voters, and more than 90 percent of black voters.25

Self-identified Christian voters largely voted for Romney. Among Protestants, Romney led by a wide margin (57 vs. 42 percent), while Catholics were nearly evenly split, slightly favoring President Obama (50 percent to 48 percent). Meanwhile, voters who reported no religious affiliation heavily favored President Obama (70 percent).

With talk of the 2016 presidential nomination already underway, we wondered how people were intending to vote when asked (about one year into President Obama’s second term), and if race and religion continue to divide American voters.

Despite official voter turnout hovering around 55 percent in recent presidential elections, survey respondents remained optimistic about their likelihood of voting in the 2016 presidential race. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) report that they will definitely vote and an additional 15 percent say they might. Despite the fact that over 40 percent of the population consistently does not vote in presidential elections, only 12 percent say they will probably not vote.

Among those who say they will vote or might vote, 47 percent say that they are somewhat or very likely to vote for a Republican candidate in the next presidential election. Christian voters have historically backed Republican candidates, but is the conservative Christian voter base still intact? And how extensively have Democrats made inroads with religious voters?


Figure 5.1 reveals that most Protestant potential voters26 continue to heavily favor Republican candidates. Only liberal Protestants—who account for just 11 percent of Protestants—do not. Catholics are split along particular identities, with “traditional” Catholics squarely leaning Republican, in contrast to liberal Catholics (who do not).

Non-Christians, however, are far less likely to signal support for a Republican candidate. Of those who say they “might” vote or “will” vote, 50 percent of Hindus say they are likely or very likely to vote for a Republican. From there Republican support diminishes to 31 percent among Jews, 31 percent among “spiritual-but-not-religious” voters, 26 percent among Buddhists, 23 percent among the unaffiliated/agnostic/atheist, and 14 percent among Muslims.

Those identifying with traditionally conservative Christian groups such as evangelical, Pentecostal, and fundamentalist Protestants, as well as traditional Catholics, remain squarely in favor of a Republican in the White House in 2016. While Republicans garner broad support from most Christian groups, some are skeptical, including mainline Protestants and “moderate” Catholics. In large measure these still report majority support for a future Republican presidential nominee, but with notably less enthusiasm than their more religiously conservative peers. Meanwhile, liberal Protestants and liberal Catholics are squarely in the Democratic camp, expressing low levels of support for potential Republican candidates.

Race and ethnicity will also likely prove to be important factors in the coming presidential election. While Mitt Romney captured the white vote 59 percent to 39 percent, only 53 percent of whites say they are at least somewhat likely to vote for a Republican candidate, meaning that whites may split closer to down the middle in the next election. Meanwhile, Republicans may have gained some ground among Latino voters, 42 percent of whom say they are somewhat likely to vote for a Republican, compared to just 27 percent who actually voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. A future Republican nominee’s chances are better among religious Latinos: 55 percent of Latino Protestants and 43 percent of Latino Catholics say they are somewhat or very likely to vote Republican. Black voters remain staunchly democratic and show few signs of changing.

But the 2016 presidential election is still a long way away. No nominees have even indicated they will run yet. Thus this remains an intellectual exercise—one without names. But of one thing we can be confident—that the next presidential race will remain deeply divided along racial and religious lines.

22Political Polarization in the American Public.” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. June 12, 2014. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

23 Abramowitz, Alan. “How Race and Religion have Polarized American Voters.The Washington Post. January 20, 2014. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

24 How the Faithful Voted: 2012 Preliminary Analysis.” Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project. November 7, 2012. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

25How Groups Voted in 2012.” Roper Center Public Opinion Archives. Retrieved August 26, 2014

26 “Potential voters” are those who said they will definitely vote, or that they might vote. These two groups comprise 88 percent of the population ages 18-60. This group was used in all subsequent analyses of voting behavior and in figures in this section.

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