Who will be the president of the United States for the next four years? Right now, we don’t know. Joe Biden currently holds 238 electoral votes to President Trump’s 213. But, as of Wednesday afternoon, ballots are still being counted in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia and the final decision may take days to decide. Among white evangelical and born-again Christians, Trump earned 78 percent of the vote, according to the first 110,000 voters surveyed by the Associated Press for its VoteCast poll. Preliminary estimates from the National Election Pool put it a little lower, at 76 percent.
This week on Quick to Listen, we wanted to discuss the election with those who have been following this race closely. Here’s senior news editor Kate Shellnutt, news editor Daniel Silliman, and researcher Ryan Burge joining global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #237
Let’s start by getting a gut-check from each of you. How are you feeling and thinking about this morning?
Kate Shellnutt: Similar to both of you, I had gone into the night expecting that this morning we wouldn’t have an answer and that Daniel, and I would be writing a story about a delayed result in the election. However, I really thought we would have kind of an inkling either way and we were more waiting for confirmation. That we would see one candidate having a narrower path to victory than the other.
And to be honest, at least when I went to bed around 4 a.m., it looks like a dead heat. It looks like there were just as many chances for President Trump as there were for Joe Biden. I just didn’t expect it to really feel so undecided, even though I knew that we would be waiting for these ballot counts in states where they still had mail-in ballots and absentee ballots to go through.
Daniel Sillman: I definitely echo Kate’s feeling site. Thinking back to 2016, it wasn’t decided for a while, but it seemed like the scales were clearly tipping, where right now it’s a little more sort of wait-and-see.
And then as we are watching these numbers come in, I just feel like there’s so much we don’t know—about demographic movements and what was deciding people’s votes, and how people are understanding the state of our country, the particular candidates, and the choices that were fronted presented to them.
I just am kind of struck by how much we don’t know this morning.
Ryan Burge: I try to pride myself on being a rigorously empirical and rational person, but last night put that to the test. Last night, I was thinking who in the world wants to be an election forecast or after this one? I think that’s like the worst job in America right now.
But the thing is, when you build these models, hardly ever do they have to prove themselves out in the real world. They just have to work in your little paper that you’re writing, and you never have to actually show if it matches up to real-world results.
And this is like building a self-driving car and then putting it on the road and taking your hands off the wheel and saying, “Oh, I think this is going to work, but I’m not a hundred percent sure.” And then having to correct over the evening, as you see things happening that you did not expect to happen, or as Donald Rumsfeld said, “Unknown unknowns happened” and you have to recalibrate throughout the night. And the whole time I was thinking, I am so glad that there aren’t a million people refreshing my blog every minute, trying to find my next thought.
It’s early like everyone else said. It’s very early. And I’m still not convinced the polls were off as much as people are saying they were off on social media.
Based on some of the early exit poll data, can you tell us what we know so far when it comes to how different kinds of Christians voted? And as you’ve looked at exit poll data on religion and especially Christians, where their numbers were surprising to you?
Ryan Burge: So first, with the evangelical number, this is self-identified evangelicals. At exit polls, they ask you, “Do you consider yourself born-again or evangelical?” And they typically don’t filter out the Protestants. So you can have Catholics, you can have Mormons, you could have Muslims, you can have Buddhists—and by the way, some of those people do say they’re born-again or evangelical. So they’re sort of thrown into that mix.
Ted Olsen: Yeah, you said last night, that 15% of Catholics, but also 13% of Muslims and 7% of Jews say, I’m born-again or evangelical.
Ryan Burge: I don’t know if they filtered out just for Protestant—which they should have, but I don’t think they did that—so take all of this with a grain of salt.
The 78% number is right in line with what 2016 was, what 2012 was, and what 2008 was. It’s usually between 75 and 78%. So I don’t see any significant shifts there. Trump did not do better with white evangelicals, but he didn’t do worse either.
It does look like about 4% went for third-party candidates, which is more than I would have guessed because there really were not viable third-party candidates like there were four years ago. So I think that’s going to be a story—where did they go? who did they vote for? Because they really didn’t have a good choice as they had like in 2006.
Kate Shellnutt: I do think that VoteCast number does include non-Protestants, but I imagine even when we get down the line and have a more specific statistic for evangelicals by belief and by tradition, we’re going to see the same levels of support just based on where we’ve seen pastors and Christian leaders align.
A number of political scientists have confirmed what we’ve seen anecdotally, which is there are not a lot of people who supported Donald Trump in 2016 that are no longer supporting him in 2020. It reflects what we’ve seen on the ground—the president’s evangelical supporters have remained steady or gotten more enthusiastic. And we really see few, if any people, dropping out because of what they’ve seen from the president. And a lot of that is based on policy and what they see as effectiveness in office.
Ryan, did you encounter some other surprises throughout the evening?
Ryan Burge: So the Catholic vote is wild to me because I’ve looked at several different outcomes. In VoteCast, I have 52% Catholics for Biden, which is crazy high. Like that’s probably the upward bound of my optimistic scenario for Biden.
So in 2016, Trump got 59% and Clinton got 41%. So an 18-point spread. And if these numbers are to be believed, Biden got a six-point advantage this time around—Trump only got 46 and Biden got 52.
But then I have exit polls for NBC amongst white Catholics and they show 66% for Trump and 34% for Biden, which is wildly different—like way outside the margin of error. And I don’t know how to parse those two things. I think realistically, I thought that Trump was going to get low fifties amongst Catholics—50-53%, and then Biden was going to get 45-47%.
I don’t see how Trump could have got to 66%. I think if Trump got to 66% amongst white Catholics, then he should have won Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan by large numbers, which at 7:32 a.m. Central Time is not true.
So that’s where the exit polls are not jiving with what my mind would think in terms of the statewide composition of Rust Belt states. So I think Biden did peel away some support. He got the white Catholic vote down to maybe 52% for Trump and 48% for him, which probably will be enough to take several of those Rust Belt states.
I think that’s a big story.
My understanding is that the Catholics generally have voted straight down the middle of how the American vote has generally gone. Has that shifted in recent elections? Do we see Catholics voting differently from the general American populous or are the trends there?
Ryan Burge: So I think generally Catholics are a good bellwether for American society as a whole because racially they’re starting to look more and more like America. They’re becoming less white over time—a lot more Hispanics especially, there are some African-American Catholics as well—but I think they’re also seeing the same bifurcation that we’re seeing in the general electorate, which is that white people have become more Republican over time while people of color have stayed very strongly for the Democrats.
So in 2008, it was 55% for McCain amongst white Catholics; in 2012, it was 56% white Catholics for Romney; And then now in 2016 with Trump, he won 59%. So the most interesting question going into this election was, were white Catholics going to keep going to the right, or was this going to be sort of a repudiation of Trump? Was that right-ward shift going to turn back to the left?
Let’s talk about what we know about the “Latino Vote.” This idea of a monolithic Latino vote seems to be a particular narrative that people are interested in complicating or ending on social media, depending on who you follow. Maybe you can nuance that for us—particularly among different ethnic groups and also between Protestants and Catholics.
Ryan Burge: So there are two data points that I want to point out from last night—something we do know for sure.
Miami-Dade County, which is a predominantly Hispanic county, predominantly of a blue stronghold too—Democrats have done very, very well there. Clinton, in 2016, won Miami-Dade County by almost 30 points. But Biden won it by less than 10 points last night, which was really one of the first warning signs for the Biden campaign that he was going to lose Florida.
Now that’s a Cuban population and we know that Cubans are typically more conservative than Latinos as a whole are. As a whole, Latinos lean to the left—about 65% identify as Democrats or vote for the Democrat. Cubans are about 50/50.
Now the other one that really has been stuck in my mind is a little bitty county on the Rio Grande Valley, on the border of Mexico and Texas, called Starr County, Texas. Now there are only 20,000 votes cast last night in Starr County. I think over 90% of the population is Hispanic. Hillary Clinton won it by 50 points in 2016, and Biden won it by five points last night.
So for me, those are like two bellwethers that show either Biden doesn’t do well with Hispanics or the Democrats have really lost significant ground with Hispanics.
To bring that to the religion angle, we know the Hispanic evangelicals are a really interesting group because on immigration, they’re not as conservative as Republicans are on things like building a wall, sanctuary cities, or charging border crosses with felonies. But on abortion and gay marriage, Hispanic evangelicals are actually more conservative than white evangelicals on those issues. And on fiscal policy, they’re just as conservative as white evangelicals.
So I feel like they’re a group that could have gone either way in 2020, but based on what we’re initially seeing here, it looks like a lot of Hispanic evangelicals and even some Hispanic Catholics shifted from a Clinton vote in 2016 to a Trump vote in 2020. Which kind of spells a lot of doubt going forward for what the Democratic coalition looks like.
Let’s pivot and talk about third parties. Daniel, did any third-party candidate to get any traction last night that you find significant and want to bring to our attention?
Daniel Sillman: No. End of story.
But that was to be expected. And that’s what all of the third-party presidential candidates that I spoke to for CT told me. Each one wanted to establish themselves as an option but didn’t see this as the year that things changed for third parties.
It’s generally a pretty hard road for third parties. Only three third-party candidates since World War II have made any kind of a substantive showing.
But they’re all just saying, “Let’s establish ourselves as an alternative in case the two-party system breaks down.” It would take something cataclysmic probably, but they just want to be the escape pod.
Kate, can you talk about some of the propositions or ballot measures that you were tracking throughout the evening?
Kate Shellnutt: Well, the biggest ones for evangelicals are going to be the measures on abortion, and the two ones that we had covered were in Colorado and Louisiana.
In Colorado, a measure that would have been its first ban on abortion at a certain point in pregnancy—at 22-weeks gestation—didn’t pass.
Then in Louisiana, which has been much more conservative and has historically passed several regulations on abortion, are were looking to further strengthen its position in the courts when these are inevitably challenged. And it won that, creating a law that establishes that abortion is not a right secured by their state constitution. So that’ll help them going forward should some of the regulations on abortion continue to go and get challenged in the courts going forward.
On a smaller scale, several states have legalized recreational marijuana, and I believe D.C. legalized mushrooms. And we also celebrated that Mississippi has changed its state flag. That was something that Baptists in the state had advocated for in the legislature—removing a Confederate emblem from the flag—and it was ratified and approved by the state. They now have a flag that has a magnolia and says, “In God We Trust.” So Christians are among those celebrating that change in Mississippi.
Daniel Sillman: With some of these ballot measures, I think it serves as a reminder that when we shift from the president to some of these other things, the country seems to be changing, but not necessarily in consistent ways.
The difference between the abortion ballot measure in Louisiana and Colorado is noticeable, but then drugs don’t seem to be linked to some other issues in the way that you might expect in a sort of party platform kind of way.
And then I also saw that more people in Florida voted for a $15 minimum wage then voted for Joe Biden, which is interesting. So there are lots of shifts happening right now, but we tend to talk about them like they’re all linked together and that doesn’t seem to be quite accurate.
Looking at Congress, how did some of the races that we were looking at as particular examples of how Christian faith and electoral politics go?
Kate Shellnutt: It’s a mix of wins, losses, and ties from the sample that we were able to feature this election season.
So some of our readers might recognize the name John Deberry, who was the Tennessee state legislator we featured because of his position as a pro-life Democrat. He was taken off the ballot by his party over his stance on a range of issues, including abortion. And he ended up losing the districts that he has represented since 1994 to a candidate who is far more progressive than he is—that took a more progressive stance on abortion, but also would be the first LGBT candidate to represent that place in Memphis. So that was one that was a loss.
Bob Good, who was running for a kind of contentious and what people thought might be a close election in the fifth district of Virginia, which represents Charlottesville, where UVA is, as well as Lynchburg, where Liberty is. He ended up winning his race and that district stays Republican.
Another interesting one was down in Georgia where there was a massive slate of candidates going for an open Senate seat that has been previously appointed. And now Raphael Warnock, who was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King famously served, has made the runoff. And that election will be happening in January between him and Kelly Loffler, who is very famously a very pro-Trump Republican. So that tension that we see here is representative of what we see in Georgia right now—the idea that this election is pretty close, and the ballots are still being counted in an unlikely swing state being a toss-up between the two presidential candidates.
Daniel Sillman: We also follow a couple of evangelical women running for Congress. One in Washington State, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who’s running for reelection. She’s a part of an evangelical free church and has really been emphasizing prayer and unity in divided times. And she won pretty handily with 60% of the vote out in Washington state.
And then we also looked at a newcomer, Hillary Sculpin in Michigan, trying to flip a district around Grand Rapids. That’s been Republicans since the lines were drawn in the nineties, and she’s a little left of her district. But also has deep Dutch reformed roots and connections. Her husband teaches at Calvin and she’s a part of the largest Christian reform church in the area. That race doesn’t look like it’s been finally called by the AP.
Let’s go back to the exit polls and the presidential election. With Black Protestants, what are we seeing with them?
Ryan Burge: So Black Protestants are the strongest voting bloc in America for the Democrats, typically vote around 90% for the Democrat. But the initial data shows a little bit of softness there amongst Black Protestants for Biden.
I’ve seen numbers that say that young Black people especially, were not as strong for Biden—and that matters in a state like Ohio, where your rural area is going to be deep, deep red, and your urban areas are going to be deep, deep blue. But if you’re a Democrat, you have to run up the score in places like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus—in the urban centers with African-Americans because that’s where the large concentrations are.
And I have data that showing especially amongst young, very devout black Protestants, who go to church once a week or more—they’ve actually moved 20 points away from the Democrats over the last 20 years. They are more likely to identify as Independents. So this young Black coalition of evangelical Protestants is not as strongly tied to the Democratic Party as their parents and grandparents were. And we actually might see some softening amongst really devout African-Americans, especially as we go forward.
Now on the turnout front, here’s what we know: turn out overall was very robust this time. I’ve seen projections that say that it might be some of the highest turnouts we’ve seen in our lifetimes—at least going back to 30 or 40 years, which would be a good sign for our democracy.
Do any of you have a sense that there will be a clear cut narrative that emerges from this election? And how might that narrative impact how the church talks to each other over the next couple of years?
Ryan Burge: To quote the Wu-Tang Clan, or at least paraphrase them, “Partisanship rules everything around me.” And I think that’s really what this story is about.
Listen, white evangelicals are Republicans, they’re going to vote for the Republican no matter who it is. Which is a story, from a theological perspective, that they voted for Trump at the same level they voted for Romney. But Republicans are going to vote for Republicans.
By the way, white evangelical Republicans are 13% of all adults in America today. They’re literally the largest religious voting bloc in America today. They are the core of the Republican party and they did not go anywhere. There was no defection there.
Which if you’re a Republican is very, very good for you in the short term, and the long-term is problematic because we’re seeing white evangelicals become a smaller and smaller share of the population every year as the white share of the population goes down every year.
So it’s a winning coalition now, but I’m not so sure it’s a winning coalition in five or 10 years.
Daniel Sillman: And going forward, one of the questions will be about the impact of partisanship has on religious communities. It’s not clear yet, but we certainly see signs that there are people who are less willing to claim the title “evangelical” because they see it as a primarily political demographic that doesn’t fit them. And going forward we’ll see what happens there.
I think there’s also a question about the Democratic faith outreach. Biden did more religious outreach than any Democrat that I can remember, and it didn’t matter to this demographic. It might’ve mattered to other groups of people, but it didn’t matter to white evangelicals and maybe not to Latino evangelicals. So I wonder what lessons Democrats are going to take from that going forward, whether they are more likely to speak to concerns like religious liberty or whether they just say that’s a lost cause.
As we see continued political division, do any of you anticipate that it will be harder for multi-ethnic churches to pull people together because of some of the trends? And where do you see the Latino and Black Christian vote playing into that dynamic?
Daniel Sillman: With pastors of both politically and ethnically diverse churches that I talked to, there is a tendency to try and not be overtly political, or to rise above partisanship and talk about how the gospel is bigger than partisanship.
Christians have to agree that racism is bad and that the gospel is not a gospel for white people, and yet they can legitimately disagree on what that means for policies around policing, for example.
But what these churches seem to be finding is that on a dime, things will become political that wasn’t political before. Whether that’s because of the pandemic and the question of wearing masks, or whether that’s because of some the turmoil around racism. “God loves everybody” can be seen as a sort of anti-Black Lives Matter statements that would have felt neutral a month before.
So the ways that people have maintained communion will not always work going forward or will at least be easy going forward. So it’s a real challenge to Christians who don’t want partisanship to rule the day.
At the beginning of this year, Kate, you had written this piece about Pastor Guillermo Maldonado, who had visited the white house a couple of times during Trump’s presidency and then who had hosted an event for Trump. Did this story, and others you worked on, give you a sense of what the Latino evangelical turnout might look like?
Kate Shellnutt: The Hispanic voters overall was a group courted by President Trump. By focusing on things like religious freedom, comparing the religious freedom offered under President Trump to the kinds of religious freedom that people from Cuba, Venezuela, or Colombia, governments that parents or grandparents might’ve fled from. So he set himself up in contrast.
And then there were also faith leaders, including Hispanic faith leaders, who were pushing Hispanic prosperity under Trump. That this was a good economy for them. So I think that this shows that those efforts in that messaging paid off in places like Texas and Florida.
And we saw pulling Latino voters going into this election as being tight overall for Christians, but it’s also coming in much more favorable than in 2016, where perhaps maybe all they knew was “build a wall” and now they see more with the Trump campaign reaching out to them in particular.
Overall, the evangelical coalition around Trump does sway Pentecostal and charismatic. So even if we think of Trump as being the white evangelical, traditional Republican candidate, there are these leaders like Maldonado who were able to take part.
Israel has also been a very important issue for this community, and there were some notable foreign policy accomplishments that the Trump administration secured with regards to countries like the United Arab Emirates recognizing Israel. Did that come up in some of your reporting?
Kate Shellnutt: Sure. And for some evangelical voters, that is the deciding factor. It’s a small number, but there are leaders like Joel Rosenberg, who said that seeing Trump’s commitment to Israel is what made him decide to drop the “Never Trump” label he held in the 2016 campaign.
So yeah, there are people that this is their number one issue. And I don’t think you see that as much outside of evangelicalism at all.
What about all people who are not affiliated with any particular religion? Do we, at this point, have any type of political profile for this group, or is it kind of all over the place?
Ryan Burge: So there are three different types of “nones”—there’s atheists, agnostics, and nothing in particular.
Atheists are super liberal, very Democratic, very progressive. They are about 6% of the population. They voted for Biden 80/20, which is no surprise. Agnostics are a sort of slightly less liberal version of your atheist—75% of them voted for Biden in 2020.
But then your “nothing in particular” group is fascinating to me because they are one of the largest religious groups in America. One in five Americans is a “nothing in particular.” And I haven’t seen voting stats for them in 2020, but in 2016 they actually growing for Trump. They were only 32% for Romney in 2012, but they were 40% for Trump in 2016. And they are all over the country.
The issue with the “nothing in particular” group is they have very low levels of education—only about 20% of them have a college degree when it’s about 45% of atheists with a college degree. So they are a lot different educationally and they don’t turn out as much. So I think that’s a group, if one of the parties could have activated, could have helped when some of their vote share.
Unfortunately, we don’t have data on that yet, but it looks like with the “nones” overall, 73% of them voted for Biden, which is some strength from 2016. It looks like Biden was able to win back some of those “nothing in particulars,” which along with white Catholics, might be where Biden made the most gains from 2016.
Is there any hope of separating the conversation of evangelicalism as a renewal movement and talking about it as a political movement? Or are we seeing a repeat of 2016 and evangelicalism is going to be described as a solid political block?
Kate Shellnutt: I’ll share something kind of more anecdotal, but I think it’s along these lines.
One of the people who I talked to leading up to the election last night was Kathryn Freeman, who’s written for CT and she used to work in public policy for the Baptist General Convention of Texas. She’s African American, and I asked her about 2016 versus today, and she described how Christians of color, evangelicals of color, have different expectations going into 2020. That a lot of them were frustrated, hurt, and disappointed in the white evangelical vote.
But she sees, regardless of the outcome—whether we have Trump reelected or whether Biden wins—that those evangelicals of color have a new sense of resilience and faith. And that she’s seeing a lot of flourishing from the margins, flourishing despite circumstances, and seemed really hopeful about lessons learned between 2016 and 2020.
And I think as we zoom out and we, as Christianity Today, in particular, try to acknowledge that white evangelicals are this tight Republican voting block that easy to talk about, it’s not the breadth of the church. And we certainly don’t define the church that way.
So I think the more and more we zoom out, we’re going to see rich nuance between people. And we will see disagreement, but I think that’s also where we see unity in Christ demonstrated. So I’m really looking into ways that we might listen to the voices beyond that 81% to see the work of the church overall.
Can you share a bit about what you discovered about the Chinese American vote?
Kate Shellnutt: Yeah, so it’s a slice of a small vote, but it also tells us something about the nature of the church. So Chinese American Christians are the most undecided Asian-American voting corner. There are just a lot of different political priorities, depending on generation and country of origin and views towards China policy.
Certainly, there’s a shared fate there. There are conservative values around religious freedom and, in some cases, abortion and gay marriage. But also there is a younger generation that’s less tolerant of what they see as hateful speech from the President, what they see as harmful policies on immigration and refugees.
And so we see that happening in that one small demographic of Chinese American Protestants, but I think you would see that across different racial groups within evangelicalism too—that there are conservative values, but there are also what we would see as some progressive values, stemming from what they see as like a biblical commitment to what the way of Christ is.
Any other closing thoughts?
Ryan Burge: I’ll just bring in data really quickly. I scraped Twitter for the word evangelical. So all the tweets that contain the word “evangelical” and found that the word “Trump” is showing up in a higher and higher concentration of tweets that contain the word “evangelical” over the last couple of years. Which means, at least in the eyes of the general public, evangelicalism and Trump are being more closely aligned.
Twitter is obviously not the world—only 20% of Americans actually tweet—but I think it shows you what the chatter looks at least in the consciousness of social media, which is typically young people and educated people. They’re seeing evangelicalism more as a political movement and less as a religious movement every day.
Daniel Sillman: Yeah, I would add to that so far there’s nothing in 2020 that would make us think that 2016 was some wild aberration or a fluke.
But I see with evangelicalism an increasing tendency to identify it mainly as a political group, and a bit of a growing division between white evangelicalism and places where evangelicalism is only white evangelicalism and places where evangelicalism means something more pluralistic and global.
Sometimes when people are talking about white evangelicals, I do wonder how much they’re just talking about whiteness. And I think going forward, it will help us to try and sort those things out when and where we can.