The demographics of Clinton and Trump voters

We already know a lot about who voted for Clinton and Trump from the exit polls. While there were a number of demographic features that produced meaningful splits—age, gender, rural/urban, and so on—the biggest of the big deals involved race, religion, sexual orientation, and education. According to the exit polls, Clinton did particularly well with blacks, LGBT folks, non-Christians, Latinos, Asians, immigrants, and people who never attend religious services, while Trump did particularly well with white evangelicals, Mormons, and whites without 4-year college degrees.

We now have another major sample. The Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) made its 2016 raw data public last week, providing another look at these kinds of demographics. There are good and not-as-good points about the CCES. On the good side: It’s big (almost 50,000 respondents for the post-election wave), it includes both voters and non-voters, and it has a nice range of demographic variables. On the not-as-good side: It’s an online panel, which skews toward more sophisticated respondents and thus tends to be less reliable with downscale groups. So, for example, an unrepresentatively large percentage of the sample reported voting, which probably comes from a combination of the fact that it’s a more sophisticated volunteer sample (and those folks are more likely to vote) as well as the fact that there’s usually some self-reporting bias on this kind of question.

Nonetheless, on the whole, it’s a seriously helpful study. It’s nice to see the processed results from the exit polls, but then it becomes frustrating because you can’t ask follow-up questions like, you know, what was the deal with non-degreed whites who were not Christian? Or what was up with Hispanic evangelicals? The CCES data lets us look.

Here’s my analysis of the demographic splits that mattered most in the CCES sample. Turns out that it reveals the same basic big-deal items as the exit polls: race, religion, sexual orientation, and education. But, here, we get to see more fine-grained groups. The chart below shows the results, splitting the CCES sample (including both voters and non-voters) into 12 mutually exclusive demographic groups.

(Notes: The “Neither” response category includes both non-voters and third-party voters. “White” is a bigger category here than it usually is, including non-Hispanics who were coded as either white, native, or other; my guess is that lots of the CCES “natives” and “others” are actually whites giving cute answers. “Hispanic/Asian” includes Hispanics (regardless of other racial category), Asians, Middle Easterners, as well as mixed-race individuals. “LGBT” means people who indicated that they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and “Straight” means people who did not. “Evangelical” includes all non-Catholics who identified as “born again or evangelical” as well as Mormons. “Specific non-Christian” means everyone who chose a non-Christian religious identity (i.e., Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, and agnostic) but excluding “nothing in particular” and “other”; basically, I think that among less-educated folks these latter categories pick up large numbers of Christians who just think of themselves as “Christian” rather than the given option of “Protestant.” “Religious middle” means people who are neither “Evangelical” nor “Specific non-Christian”—i.e., it combines non-evangelical Christians with the “nothing in particular” and “other” folks. Results are weighted.)

Dividing the public

The first thing you want to know about American voters these days is race, with blacks on the left, whites on the right, and other groups in between. Then, within blacks, there isn’t much else that really matters in predicting partisanship—it’s such a solidly Democratic group that additional demographic features tend not to be very interesting in the end. If I had made an additional split for this sample within blacks, it would have been by gender. Black men were a bit less likely to be such unwavering Clinton supporters (something that showed up in the exit polls as well).

Within Hispanics/Asians, the next-biggest deal is religion, with non-Catholic evangelicals and Mormons actually favoring Trump over Clinton. Within non-evangelical Hispanics/Asians, there aren’t other big demographic deals; had I done an additional split here, it would have been by home ownership, where the non-homeowners were particularly likely to support Clinton over Trump. (Also, Hispanic/Asian military veterans were pretty substantially to the right of non-veterans, though there weren’t enough Hispanic/Asian veterans in the sample (just a few hundred) to justify a further split.)

Within whites, the next-biggest deal is also religion, with non-Christians on the left, evangelicals on the right, and non-evangelical Christians in between. But I decided to first split out whites into those with and without 4-year college degrees, given that this division is currently receiving the most attention. Also, I decided to split out LGBT folks after education but before religion; this is because there aren’t a huge number of LGBT folks, and so you need to split them out pretty early to have big enough groups to be confident in what you’re seeing. I didn’t do further divisions within the white LGBT groups, but if I had pushed the data I would have split out Christians and non-Christians. White Christian LGBT folks were much more divided on the Clinton-Trump decision, while white non-Christian LGBT folks were very solid Clinton supporters.

Finally, military veterans were generally more supportive of Trump. This showed up just once in the chart, but if I had kept going with smaller splits, there would have been other groups where this division appeared.

So that’s the chart. The Clinton coalition was predominately blacks, white LGBT and non-Christian folks (both degreed and, to a lesser extent, non-degreed), and non-evangelical Hispanics and Asians.

The Trump coalition was predominately white, straight evangelicals (both non-degreed and, to only a somewhat lesser extent, degreed) along with white, non-degreed, straight veterans in the religious middle. Also leaning in Trump’s direction were white, non-degreed, straight non-veterans in the religious middle, as well as Hispanic and Asian evangelicals.

And, lastly, one group was pretty much split down the middle: white, degreed, straight, non-evangelical Christians. This group is politically quite important—indeed, it’s the group that contains both Clinton and Trump (not to mention Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, John Roberts, and so on). Had I kept going with a further division here, it would have been to split out veterans (who favored Trump bigly) and non-veterans (who favored Clinton).

Big deals and not-as-big deals

I suspect, given the usual conversations around demographics, that some readers will be surprised with some of the things not showing up on the chart. For example, when people think of demographic splits, two of the things that typically come to mind are age and gender. Aren’t those big deals in partisan politics? Actually, no. No they’re not. They’re deals. In fact, they’re non-trivial deals. But they aren’t big deals.

Age differences in partisan voting these days have much to do with the racial and religious differences between younger and older folks. There are just a lot more minorities and non-Christians among younger cohorts. Thus, when you start splitting out a sample by the biggest deals—race and religion—you end up teasing out some of the key sources of age differences, so there often isn’t much statistical need at that point to make further splits based explicitly on age. Age is very similar to urban/rural and other regional differences in this regard—yes, there are political differences between different kinds of places, but they largely come down to the major racial, religious, and educational differences between cities and rural areas and between different parts of the country.

With gender, I’ve just never found that it regularly shows up as a major thing. Sometimes it’s a solid second-tier predictor. For example, when I look at whites who are college-educated and not super-religious, there are often substantial differences between men and women on average. And, frankly, I was expecting to see some bigger gender differences in the 2016 CCES sample, given that this was the first time a woman ran as a major party candidate. But no. It’s not that there were no reliable differences between men and women; it’s just that they weren’t sizable enough to make the cut.

Also absent from the chart are any splits based on income or church attendance. When I looked at the Obama elections using 2012 CCES data, income and church attendance were important secondary themes. But not this time. In fact, I didn’t see any indication in the 2016 CCES data that income differences were making more than a trivial contribution to the election. Church attendance had an impact, though not nearly enough to justify further splits once I made the main religion splits.

Identity politics and the changing party coalitions

The main patterns—the strong race/religion/LGBT differences, the increased salience of education among whites, and the decline in importance for income and church attendance—all point in the same direction: The 2016 election was mainly about Christian white nationalism. It was about discrimination vs. inclusion. It was about making America great again vs. being stronger together. These issues pit the interests of white, straight Christians with less education against the interests of minorities and meritocrats.

Democrats have faced some post-election complaints for relying too heavily on “identity politics.” It’s a weird charge in at least two ways. First, Trump surely deserves much of the blame for pushing these issues to the front burner. Prior Republican nominees had run campaigns that were focused more on small government and religious lifestyle issues (thus the typical relevance of income and church attendance), which makes Democratic positions on redistribution and lifestyle issues more salient (topics Clinton didn’t neglect, but that received less attention). Second, it makes little sense to look at the kinds of demographic splits in the chart above and think that race, sexual orientation, and religion are more relevant for one side than the other. These were the major drivers of both coalitions. And it can’t be the case that a party organized around racial minorities, LGBT folks, and non-Christians is about “identity” but a party organized around white, straight Christians is somehow not. Particularly when their candidate was so focused on a white nationalist message.

To be sure, there were strong elements of continuity between the 2016 election and other recent elections. The current major racial and religious divisions have been around since the last substantial reorganization of the parties in the mid-to-late-20th century that first drew blacks to Democrats and then drew white evangelicals and white Catholics to Republicans.

But we’re also seeing ongoing changes. Trump’s unprecedented success with non-degreed whites was based in part on converting former Obama voters, but seems to have been more about drawing former non-voters to the polls. Either way, this alters somewhat the Republican center of gravity—it’s still mostly white, straight Christians, but now with relatively more non-degreed folks and relatively fewer high-income and churchgoing folks. These kinds of coalitions are inherently fluid, with slow evolutions punctuated with periods of faster shifts that are difficult to anticipate.