[Overview] Trump Voters III – Religion and Economics

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII; Single page]

by David Severa


The Republican Party has, in recent decades, established itself as a party for the religious. It has embraced, at least in words, a socially conservative agenda. 85% of Republicans and Republican-leaners describe themselves as Christian, 22% higher than Democrats/leaners, and 45% as evangelical/born again. So why is thrice-married casino magnate Trump, whose religious instincts do not appear to extend beyond pandering as needed, doing so well? Why, when many religious leaders have come out against him? When, in January only 5% of Republican Protestant pastors supported him?

As of March 29, Trump had won “an average of 36 percent of the vote from white “born-again or evangelical Christians,” good for a plurality in 12 states and only slightly lower than his support (38 percent) among all other Republican voters”, which would seem to indicate that religion might not be a huge factor one way or the other. However, not all self-professed evangelicals are the same:

Recently released data from the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES) Pilot Study illustrate this. The study was conducted from Jan. 22-28, and here I focus on white respondents who called themselves born-again Christian. I divided evangelicals into people who “seldom or never” attend church services, those who “sometimes” attend (a few times a year, once or twice a month), and those who attend weekly or more often than weekly.


There is a clear negative relationship between support for Trump and church attendance. (But also note Trump’s plurality even among the most devout!) And, in fact, non-churchgoing evangelicals are in general more likely to support a Trump-like agenda. They care little for culture war issues, but greatly about economic issues. They hold less favorable attitudes towards Muslims, Hispanics, and blacks than other evangelicals.

There has been less research on Catholic Republicans, but they appear to support Trump at a higher rate than evangelicals (this is of course related to but distinct from the Catholic ancestry previously discussed):

Reporting on Monmouth University surveys has placed Catholic support for Trump at 30 percent in New Hampshire (where he took 27 percent of the evangelical vote), for example, and 44 percent in Iowa (where only 22 percent of evangelicals voted for him)…. In heavily evangelical South Carolina, where a third of evangelicals voted for Trump, Monmouth had 42 percent of Catholics doing the same….  Exit polls from much more Catholic Massachusetts placed Trump’s support from Catholics at an incredible 53 percent, four points higher than his support among evangelicals there…. [T]he Barna Group finds Trump’s net favorability among evangelicals at -38. Not only was it twice as high among Catholics, at only -19, but Catholics viewed Trump more favorably than did any other religious category Barna denominated.

Of note, Catholics attend church much less regularly than evangelicals. There doesn’t appear to be research on whether Catholic churchgoing is similarly related to support for Trump, but it seems plausible. (Also, Catholics are a heterogenous group that should be studied at a higher magnification than “Catholic”.)

Interestingly, the clearest relationship between religion and Trump is the negative one with the size of the Mormon population:


Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, the three most Mormon states, have hosted some of Trump’s worst performances. Various theories have been posited as to why, including Mormonism’s complicated history as a religious minority. However, there isn’t a divide in Utah between Mormons and non-Mormons, but there is one between regular churchgoers and everyone else. And Mormons are the most religiously involved group in America. Perhaps, then, Mormonism matters not so much in and of itself, but in that it does a better job of getting bodies in pews. (Of course, even non-churchgoing Utahns are still not huge Trump fans relative to their counterparts in the rest of the country; there are obviously other factors. Perhaps a culture that leads to high religiosity influences even the irreligious, or maybe people just vote like their neighbors.)


Now, all of this suggests that a typical Trump voter doesn’t have strong social ties to religion, but it’s not enough to disentangle the causation. Does churchgoing change political attitudes and if so, how? Or is there some third factor causing both? Communities that are religious but not churchgoing also tend to have greater social ills. As Ross Douthat says:

HERE is a seeming paradox of American life. One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods — health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation.

Yet at the same time, some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.

The gains associated with religion come entirely from (or are only correlated with) religious practice rather than having a professed faith. The non-practicing-yet-religious, the “Christian Penumbra”, do more poorly on such measures than both the practicing religious and the irreligious. This is the group most likely to support Trump.

For comparison, Mormons, in addition to higher religiosity, are more socially conservative, less likely to be divorced, and have higher levels of education and income than the US average. They are more pro-immigrant than the rest of the GOP. Salt Lake City has high upward mobility. Mormonism produces – or at least happens to coincide with – social conditions that are hostile to Trumpism.

The social pathologies observed among communities that vote Trump – lower education, lower incomes, higher mortality – suggest that both likelihood to vote Trump and not go to church stem from an underlying cause. In other words, while religious factors may play a role, what’s being detected is likely not just religion, but something larger. (Though religiosity could also be a factor in its own right.)

Income and education

Here, I think that it’s useful to begin by looking at who votes for Republicans out of the nation’s population as a whole. While income may help predict who votes GOP, that doesn’t mean it tells us much about a candidate’s support within the GOP. From the 2012 election (for reference, household income in 2012 was $51,371):

2012 vote by income-01(Source)

As you can see, the average voter made more money than the average American; income and voting are positively correlated. (And since turnout is lower in primaries, primary voters may have even higher incomes on average.) Voters with above average incomes made up a majority of both Obama’s and Romney’s support. But while Romney barely won those making more than $50,000 a year, Obama had much stronger support among low-income voters, winning 63% of those making less than $30,000 a year. Presumably much of this was due to his huge margins among black and Hispanic voters.


I suspect that the sample sizes here are quite small, so take the above chart with a grain of salt. Probably some of the income gap among Hispanics is actually a voting gap between different Hispanic groups – Cubans-Americans, Mexican-Americans… – with different voting patterns. The minimal effect of income on white voters, who Romney won with 59%, seems surprising, so let’s break that down:


I’m not sure I see any real pattern among Southern whites (and some of the sample sizes are small), but the lopsided U-shaped support for Democrats outside of the South fits their usual pattern. Republicans get more support from wealthy whites, but I don’t think it’s fair to straightforwardly call either party the party of the rich or of the poor, especially when you account for other demographic factors. Still, the Republicans are the party of the more-rich, overall. In any case, this should contextualize what I’ve said about Trump voters being lower income – it’s only true relative to support for other Republicans, not to Democratic voters, and even less to the population as a whole.

Everyone other than non-Hispanic whites votes for Democrats in large numbers. Among whites, Southerners support Republicans in comparable numbers. Among white non-Southerners Republicans win the middle and upper-middle classes. (I don’t know that there’s enough data to say that income matters less among these other groups, it may just be that because white non-Southerners are clustered around the 50% mark the swings between income groups seem more important.)

As far as education goes, exit polls had Obama and Romney nearly tied, except for Obama winning 55% of those with postgraduate degrees. In general, Democrats also have U-shaped support when sorted by education. That is, they pick up a disproportionate share of the least- and most-educated, while Republicans do best among those with some college education but no degree. However, the gap is only about 10% at its largest.

So that’s the world into which Trump has entered. While, as we’ve seen, support for Trump is centered in areas that have been struggling in a variety of ways, support from merely the poor would not likely have won him the nomination. And according to 538:

The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.

Cruz’s supporters have a median income of $73,000, essentially the same as Trump’s. But whatever the median, as the Economist shows, he has support from across the economic and educational spectra:

On average, people earning under $50,000 have made up 29% of the Republican electorate in primary states with exit polls, and 32% of Mr Trump’s voting base. However, those earning over $100,000 have accounted for 37% of the electorate and 34% of his base. In Illinois, for example, he took 46% of those earning under $50,000, but they made up only a quarter of the electorate: he won 39% of those earning over $100,000, who were two-fifths of that primary’s voters. Voters with a high-school education or less have made up 16% of the Republican electorate and a fifth of Mr Trump’s base. College graduates and postgraduates account for 43% of his support.

Trump is winning a greater share of low-income voters, but there aren’t that many of them. Lower income voters are a roughly equal share of primary voters as in 2012, so their increased turnout isn’t helping Trump.


Also, the fact that that Trump voters are older means that these numbers may overstate their socioeconomic position. A low-income recent college grad supporting Sanders may be likely to have higher lifetime earnings than an above-average income Trump voter. If Trump voters have larger families, they may feel more financial strain than these numbers indicate. Further analysis would be needed to disentangle these effects.

In March, Politico noted “In six of the statewide GOP exit polls so far, Trump was the most popular candidate among college-educated voters. In another six, he was their second-place choice. (Only in Oklahoma did Trump fall out of the top two among those with college degrees.)” So while his support is concentrated among less-wealthy, less-educated Republicans, it is by no means limited to them. He often still wins the groups he’s doing worst with.

Given that Trump kept winning handily, his broad support shouldn’t be too surprising:

Regional economic predictors seem stronger than these individual measures, which tentatively supports my hypothesis that a typical Trump voter is someone who lives in a struggling area, without necessarily being among the hardest hit themselves. Ross Douthat says:

One useful way to think about Trump’s constituency is suggested by this Alec MacGillis piece from last fall, which investigated the swing of less-well-off red-state voters, particularly in greater Scots-Irish America, into the Republican Party in the age of Obama. (A swing that pre-dated Trump, to be clear.) As MacGillis pointed out, the voters swinging rightward are not the very poor or the chronically jobless, not the people most likely to benefit from, say, Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Rather, they are a mix of relatively prosperous blue collar workers and what in a European context we would call the petit bourgeoisie — a coalition that straddles the working class and the lower middle class:

“In eastern Kentucky and other former Democratic bastions that have swung Republican in the past several decades, the people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period. They have, as voting data, surveys and my own reporting suggest, become profoundly disconnected from the political process.

The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns.

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that these are the ur-Trump voters. Which means that — to borrow a vivid characterization from an earlier Dougherty piece (which helped inspire Kevin Williamson’s famous/infamous critique of white working class dysfunction) — they aren’t actually “Mike from Garbutt,” an opioid-addicted upstate New Yorker taking disability and contemplating leaving the unemployment line for a job at a casino. Instead, they’re probably Mike’s sister or cousin or former co-worker, who look at his situation and see a cautionary tale, an anger-inducing story about how welfare dependency political-class indifference are hastening their own communities’ decline.

What we’ve been talking about is income as a single number attached to a given voter. That doesn’t capture how a voter’s financial situation has changed over time, or how their expectations for the future have changed. From the Washington Post, this graph shows “that Trump’s gains among Republicans were larger among those who reported that their personal finances had gotten worse, compared to those whose finances had gotten better. The gap is now roughly 20 percentage points.” This is a much better predictor than income:



This matches a key attitude of Trump voters: that things are getting worse: (“Make America Great Again!”) However, there is a lot of evidence “that people’s perceptions of the economy—and even of their own financial situation—have a lot more to do with their political leanings than with objective economic facts.” Republicans say that the economy is worse when a Democrat is president and vice versa. (Overall, Americans have a positive economic outlook at the moment, by the way.) So it isn’t clear whether the above graph shows a relationship between voter’s finances or voter’s perceptions of their finances (or some combination). Perhaps questions more focused on specifics – did your income decrease over the last 12 months? – would avoid this confusion.

(This isn’t just a case of voters being convinced by Trump’s message that things are terrible though. People who were dissatisfied “about their lives, jobs, income, and economic situation in January 2015” were dramatically more likely to back Trump. The anger predates his candidacy.)

I wonder if the fact that less-educated men have seen their incomes decline over the last few decades also accounts for some of Trump’s stronger support among men. As education levels have improved too over this period, the population of people without high school diplomas today is not directly comparable to the population in the past, so the decline is probably overstated. However, an important point that I haven’t really seen made is that even if average income growth is merely stagnant or growing very slowly, that means that there is very likely a larger pool of people for whom things are in fact getting worse. Thus, if declining incomes lead to social dysfunction, it’s entirely possible that weak growth could have a larger negative impact than might be assumed from just noticing a 1% drop in growth.

To recapitulate, race predicts voting so strongly that 90+% of Republicans are white. Among whites, income plays a significant though not overwhelming factor in voting Republican. But among Republicans the effect of income on support for Trump is small relative to some of the other factors we’ve discussed. The same is true of education. And while he receives disproportionate votes from downscale Republicans, they are not the bulk of his support.


I couldn’t find good research on whether or not individual Trump voters were likely to be unemployed, or out of the labor force, but the New York Times looked at the areas that support Trump:

Likewise, a better predictor of strong Trump support than a standard-issue economic indicator like the unemployment rate is a high proportion of working-age adults who aren’t working (the correlation was strong for both men and women).

To be counted as unemployed, a person must have actively looked for work in the last month. But “not working” is a broader definition that would also include, for example, people who are discouraged by what seem like grim job prospects; who are living at home tending to the house; or who are disabled and stay home while receiving government assistance.

Nationally, 23 percent of the 25-to-54-year-old population was not working in March, up from 18 percent in 2000. The areas where Trump is most popular appear to be at the forefront of that trend.


So far we’ve covered the basic demographics of Trump voters. Next we’ll move on to their beliefs and worldviews, but first let’s review what’s been covered.

While Trump is very unpopular among non-white voters, this hasn’t harmed him much in the primary, as the Republican party is already 90% white. Among whites he does best among Appalachians and those with ancestry from Catholic countries. He does 5 to 10% worse among women. He does better among the middle aged and elderly and among the less educated and voters with lower incomes, but none of these effects are all that large individually. He hasn’t brought in many new voters to the GOP, though he has increased turnout among less attached Republicans.

Region matters a great deal. Living in areas that are socially dysfunctional matters a great deal. High mortality, “old economy” jobs, less education, low labor force participation, weak attachment to religion matter. Trump’s support in his worst counties in Utah and his best counties elsewhere differs by over 50%. Michael Brendan Dougherty summarizes:

Trump drew in the secular and moderate Northeast Republicans who had been sidelined by the conservatives. He combined those with the populist, nationalist South, particularly unchurched evangelicals. He threw in the downwardly mobile parts of Appalachia as well. The Trump coalition is a mix of Chris Christie and Jeff Sessions, with a dash of coal country thrown in.

So the prototypical Trump voter is a non-churchgoing but Christian older white male from greater Appalachia or the Northeast with some college education, maybe not doing poorly himself, but living in an area that is. (Though most Trump voters won’t fit this profile!) That Trump voters are often surrounded by social decay is the most uncertain part. More research should be done to distinguish the effects of living near poverty and living near non-whites who are poor. But we still haven’t connected the Trump voter to Trump. Why Trump? Why his populism and not Sanders’s socialism? Bill Clinton won most of Appalachia twice, so why not Hillary? Why now? It can be too easy to just say that of course this sort of voter would support Trump, to take it for granted. But why?

Next: Trumpism and Ethnocentrism

(Source for header image)

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