Exit polls only tell us about the people who have voted. While this point may seem obvious, misleading extrapolations based on exit poll numbers are the norm. For example, many people will look at the exit poll data and claim that 81 percent of (white) evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. But this is not what the exit polls reveal. The data merely show that 81 percent of (white) evangelicals who voted voted for Trump. Again, the poll doesn’t even attempt to represent a survey of all evangelicals, merely a subset of a subset.
How did American evangelicals vote in the 2016 election?
Based on polling data and news sources, you might be under the impression that an overwhelming number of evangelicals—more than 80 percent—voted for Donald Trump. But this isn’t quite accurate. There isn’t any way to truly know what percentage of evangelicals voted for our president-elect. But using a more nuanced analysis we can reasonably estimate that somewhere between 35 percent and 45 percent of all evangelicals in America voted for Trump.
Why are the media reports so off the mark? Here are four reasons:
1. Exit polls do not capture the ‘evangelical’ vote, only the ‘white evangelical’ vote.
All conclusions about 2016 voting patterns reported by the media are based on a single survey conducted by Edison Research. (Edison collected the survey for the National Election Pool, a consortium of ABC News, Associated Press, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, and NBC News.) While there are reasons to be skeptical of exit polls in general (e.g., they don’t use a random sample), let’s assume that this poll is sufficiently reliable as far as the factors it was able to measure. For this reason alone, we should be leery of claims made about “evangelical” voters.
This exit poll survey asked people to self-identify their religion from a range of choices. You could, for instance, choose to identify as evangelical on the survey—but only if you are white. If you’re an evangelical of non-white race or ethnicity—Latino, black, Asian, and so on—your closest option was to identify as “Protestant or other Christian.” As far as this exit poll is concerned, the label “evangelical” is reserved for whites only.
This means the exit poll literally has no way to determine how evangelicals voted. It doesn’t even try to do so. Like the media that commissioned the survey, it is merely interested in the subset of evangelicals who happen to be white.
2. The exit poll conflates ‘evangelical’ and ‘born-again.’
For more than a decade, observers of religion in America have attempted to point out to both media and pollsters that the terms “evangelical” and “born-again” are not synonymous. It’s a subtle, but substantial, distinction: While almost all evangelicals would describe themselves as “born-again,” not all who identify as a born-again Christian would say they are evangelical. For example, some Mormons even consider themselves to be “born again Chrisitians,” yet no evangelicals (that I’ve ever known) would consider Mormonism a branch of evangelicalism.
Yet on this exit poll voters could choose to identify as a “white evangelical or white born-again Christian.” Because the two groups have been lumped together into one category, it’s impossible to determine how many non-evangelical, born-again Christians are being counted.