Diverse voters, deep passions: what 2016 exit polls tell us
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Diverse voters, deep passions: what 2016 exit polls tell us

As, no doubt, many readers are getting flooded on social media with think pieces and hot takes (not to mention apocalyptic worry or celebration), the point of this post is simply to look at what the data seems to indicate about those who voted for President-elect Donald Trump and his opponent, Sec. Hillary Clinton. I’ll add a few thoughts at the end, but I am mostly just fascinated with the result, which shows more diverse support for each candidate than I had expect. However, I am also, like many, disappointed at the passions, particularly anger, that motivated some voters and which will remain with us, no matter what our party preferences, if we do not make a point to address them.

That said, there is a temptation, especially as of late, to paint supporters of either candidate with broad brushes (often unfavorably but sometimes overly flattering too). Neither serves the virtues of wisdom, prudence, or love, which ought to be at the forefront of any Christian social engagement. So, with the encouragement of those virtues as my goal, lets look at that some of the most interesting demographic groups this year.

I’ll be using New York Times exit polling data throughout. You can view it all and compare with past elections here.

Whites without a college degree

While this group has been getting a lot of attention, it is notable that whereas Donald Trump won 67%, Mitt Romney won 61% in 2012. That 6% difference was significant, of course, but it is not as if Republicans didn’t already do well among this group. (By contrast Trump won 49% of white college graduates, down 7% from Romney’s 56% in 2012).

Small city/rural vs. urban

Donald Trump won 62% of those who reside in rural areas or small cities. The NYT unfortunately doesn’t have data for place of residence from 2012 to compare, but Republicans have done much better in rural vs. urban areas for a long time. A glance at a 2012 map broken down by county (select “counties” on the left here) makes this clear.

White evangelical

Donald Trump won 81% of white evangelical voters. Compared with Romney’s 78% in 2012, that is an improvement, but a small one. White evangelicals voting Republican are not an anomaly.


The story here is not one of a majority for Trump, but of a general shift. Trump won significantly fewer upper and middle income voters and significantly more lower income voters than Mitt Romney. Perhaps surprisingly depending on who you’re reading, he still did not win a majority of low income voters. Voters with incomes of $50k/year and up were basically split between him and Sec. Clinton.

Roman Catholics

In an unexpected shift (to me, at least), Donald Trump won a majority of Roman Catholic voters, 52% to 45%, compared to Obama in 2012, who narrowly won this group by 50% to 48% over Romney. That’s +4% for Republicans and -5% for the Democrats.

Non-Jewish or Christian (but not “no religion”)

Trump did not win a majority of this demographic, but the shift is striking (and, again, surprising to me). In 2012, Obama won this group, listed as “something else,” 74% to Romney’s 23%. Clinton beat Trump by 62% to 29%. That’s a 6% gain for Republicans and a staggering 12% loss for Democrats. (These numbers do not add up to 100% due to those who voted for neither candidate. This is true for many categories examined here.)

Men vs. women

This one might be surprising as well, given Clinton being our first major party woman candidate and the controversy surrounding her opponent’s comments and conduct toward women. In 2012 Romney won men 52% to 45% while Obama won women 55% to 44%. This year, Trump won men 53% to 41%. That’s only a 1% gain for Republicans but a 4% loss for Democrats. Women voted by about the same margins as 2012, 54% for Clinton compared to 43% for Trump, a loss of 1% for Democrats and a loss of 2% for Republicans.


In 2012, President Obama won black voters 93% to 6%. This year Clinton won them again, but the margin was 88% to 8%, a 5% drop for Democrats and a 2% gain for Republicans.

Hispanic/Latino and Asian

Clinton won 65% of both groups, but that is down 6% among Hispanic voters and 8% among Asian voters for Obama in 2012. Perhaps surprisingly given his restrictionist immigration stances, Trump marginally improved over Romney, gaining 2% and 3%, respectively, for 29% in both. Significantly more of both groups did not vote for either major party candidate.


Donald Trump won a majority of voters who attend religious services once a week or more and a plurality of those who attend a few times a month. He and Sec. Clinton basically split those who attend a few times a year, and she handily won those who never attend 62% to 31%.

Married vs. unmarried

Donald Trump won the married vote 53% to 43%. Hillary Clinton won the unmarried 55% to 38%.


Hillary Clinton one the gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender vote 78% to 14%. That’s a 2% gain for Democrats but an 8% loss for Republicans compared to 2012.

Country “off track”

Donald Trump won among those who say the direction of the country is “seriously off track” 69% to 25%. That’s a big margin, but it is a loss of 15% for Republicans and a gain of 12% for Democrats compared to 2012.

Most important issue

Donald Trump won those who listed immigration and terrorism as their most important issues while Hillary Clinton won those who listed the economy and foreign policy.

Condition of economy

Donald Trump won those who rated our economy as “poor” or “fair.” Clinton won those who rated it “good” and “excellent.”

Outlook for future generations

Donald Trump won the pessimists, Clinton the optimists, by wide margins.

View of family finances

Trump won those who said they are worse off today while Clinton won those who said they are better off, but wide margins as well. It should be noted, with reference to income above, that this does not necessarily map onto lower vs. middle/upper class. It measures the perception of the relative change in one’s family’s financial situation, not income level. A family that saw its income shrink from $150k to $140k would rate themselves as worse off, even though they would not be considered lower income. Similarly, a family who saw their income increase from $40k to $50k would say “better off,” even though they’d still be considered lower income.

International trade

Hillary Clinton won those who have a positive view of trade, Trump those who don’t, again by wide margins.

Illegal Immigration

Clinton won those who want to offer a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, Trump won those who want to deport them, again by wide margins.

Feelings about federal government

Clinton won those who said they were enthusiastic (78% to 20%) or satisfied (75% to 20%) with the federal government. Dissatisfied was about split (44% for Clinton, 49% for Trump). Trump, however, soundly won those who are angry with the federal government 77% to 18%.

Voting for one’s candidate vs. against opponent

Clinton won those who said they were voting for (“strongly favor”) their candidate 53% to 44%. Trump won those who said the were voting against the other candidates (“dislike other candidates”) 51% to 39%.


The story among younger voters here is Democratic loss and third party gain. Obama won 60% of 18-29 year-olds in 2012. Clinton only won 55% this year. In both years 37% voted Republican, making that a %5 gain for non-major party candidates. 30-44 voted less for both major parties (about 2% each) as well. As for older voters, Trump made modest gains among the 45-64 group (+2%) but loss ground (while still winning the group) among 65 and older voters (-3%). Thus, increased Millennial and Gen X support for third parties or independent candidates seems to have hurt Democrats while Baby Boomers turned out a little better for Trump.

Most important candidate quality

Hillary Clinton won three out of four categories: “cares about people like me” (58% to 35%); “has the right experience” (90% to 8%); and “has good judgment” (66% to 26%). Who did Trump win? — “can bring needed change” (83% to 14%). For better or worse, I am reminded of Trump’s claim when he accepted the GOP nomination: “I alone can fix it” (referring to “the system”). I doubt those words will be forgotten by anyone.

Decision of when to vote

Trump voters came lately. He won a majority or plurality of voters who came to their decision “in the last few days,” “in the last week,” “in October,” and “in September.” Clinton only won those who had made up their minds before that.

Concluding thoughts

What does this tell us? Well, it tells us a lot of things. Some trends have continued and sharpened, such as the divide between rural vs. urban and college educated whites vs. whites without a college degree. Younger voters were less partisan this year, voting far less for the major party candidates than older age groups, though third party voting was up among all ages as well.

Most within the realm of Acton’s mission, those specifically angry with the federal government preferred president-elect Trump. Those with a favorable view of international trade preferred Sec. Clinton. High religiosity correlated with voting for Trump as well, more so than with Romney in 2012. Trump won Roman Catholic voters whereas Romney did not. Trump increased Republican support from white evangelicals over Romney. Trump won those with a negative view of the economy and their own finances, but that doesn’t exactly map onto income brackets. Those optimistic about the future and their own finances preferred Clinton.

In all, despite sharp division and incisive rhetoric, the electorate was far more diverse in their voting this year than I, at least, expected, and than many made it seem in their reporting last night.

To me, the perhaps most interesting division is on the level of the passions that motivated voters: Trump voters were angrier and more pessimistic. They were also more opposed to Clinton than in favor of Trump. Clinton voters were more satisfied or enthusiastic with the status quo, more supportive of their candidate, and more hopeful for the future. However, these numbers were not always as sharply divided between parties as they were in 2012.

Nevertheless, those passions deserve our attention in the aftermath of such a heated and drawn-out campaign season. They may be moral or immoral, depending on whether or not they inspire virtue. Positive emotions do not necessarily indicate virtue, and in fact sometimes can be quite vicious. Conversely, negative emotions can be used virtuously, but I will confess I personally find this more difficult in practice than the opposite, especially with reference to anger. As Abba Agatho, one of the ancient Christian desert fathers, put it, “If an angry man raises the dead, God is still displeased with his anger.”

Dissatisfaction is one thing, but anger is of another class. It is spiritually dangerous, even when righteously motivated. As St. John Cassian put it, “Leaves, whether of gold or lead, placed over the eyes, obstruct the sight equally, for the value of the gold does not affect the blindness it produces. Similarly, anger, whether reasonable or unreasonable, obstructs our spiritual vision.”

After those who were hopeful are now disappointed and those who were pessimistic have now won the day, there likely will still be a lot of anger on all sides, not just one or the other. It may be cliché, and I’m sure many others will say the same thing, but from a Christian point of view, whatever our political preference or affiliation, if we care for our souls above all (though not in any way to minimize the importance of principles and policies), and if we want to grow in wisdom, prudence, and love, we need to do better at finding ways to learn to listen, work with, and love our neighbors, even our enemies, who by the data are likely more diverse than we assume. If not, anger will continue to win the day, and God will be as dissatisfied with us as we are with each other.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.