No doubt about it, most mainstream pollsters thought the vote totals that rolled in during election night were intriguing, then stunning and, as dawn approached, almost unimaginable.

How did the chattering-class insiders miss what was clearly widespread heartland support for Donald Trump?

But there was one surprise left in the details of the early exit polls. In a race packed with soap-opera conflict and fiery rhetoric about personal ethics, morality and even faith, the experts looked at the role that religion played in 2016 and discovered — to their shock — that it was a rather normal modern election year.

“Actually, that’s astonishing news,” said Gregory A. Smith, who helps coordinate religion polling at the Pew Research Center. “If you consider all of the tumultuous events during this election year and how much tension there has been and all of the other stuff that’s been up in the air, it’s amazing that things were so steady” in terms of religion and voting, with “only a few numbers up or down a bit.

“Religious groups that have consistently supported the Republicans gave every indication they would back Donald Trump, and that’s how things turned out. The religious groups that traditionally back Democrats did so, but the turnout was down a bit. The religious groups that are usually divided were divided.”

The so-called “pew gap” held steady, with religious believers who claimed weekly worship attendance backing Trump over Hillary Clinton, 56 percent to 40 percent. Voters who said they never attend religious services backed Clinton 62 percent to 31 percent.

As always, headlines focused on white evangelical Protestants, and early exit polls showed that 81 percent of them voted either to support the thrice-married and often profane Trump or to oppose Clinton. Earlier Pew Research Center polling found that 51 percent of white evangelicals who said that they would vote for Trump indicated that they were actually taking a stand against Clinton.

Smith said that learning how many evangelicals actually supported Trump — including Hispanics and African-Americans — is a question many hope to answer with future waves of exit-poll numbers. Trump’s support from white evangelicals wasn’t all that unusual in comparison with the three previous White House races, in which white evangelicals backed GOP candidates to the tune of 78, 74 and 78 percent.

Meanwhile, white Catholics supported Trump by a 23-point margin — 60 percent to 37 percent — compared with Mitt Romney’s 19-point victory in that crucial swing-vote niche in 2012. Hispanic Catholics supported Clinton 67 percent to 26 percent.

Clinton also drew overwhelming support from the growing coalition of Americans who are religious liberals, unbelievers or among the so-called “nones,” people with no ties to any religious tradition. Nearly 70 percent of them voted for Clinton, compared with 26 percent for Trump.

The percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans continues to rise in the population, especially among young adults, said Smith. However, pollsters are curious whether higher numbers of young “nones” will eventually begin voting. There was early evidence that “nones” voted in higher numbers in Democratic primaries, supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders, than in the general election.

Clearly, this coalition of unbelievers and “nones” has become a major force in Democratic Party life, said John Green of the University of Akron, a veteran researcher on faith and public life. Pollsters will be searching in the deeper pools of unreleased exit poll numbers to see if that reality is affecting the party’s historically broad coalition.

— Terry Mattingly is the editor of and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.