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Ryan BurgeOctober 16, 2020
President Donald Trump arrives at a campaign rally at Des Moines International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

(RNS) — There’s been a lot of discussion about the role of religion in the current presidential election, with pundits prognosticating whether President Donald Trump can still count on 80% of white evangelicals to vote for him as they did in 2016, or whether Joe Biden, an old-school Northeastern white Catholic, can erode his fellow religionists’ support for Trump, whom they backed by a 20 point margin over Hillary Clinton.

However, the most important religious group to the 2020 presidential election is not really a religious group at all. 

When asked to state their religious preference on a survey, a growing share of Americans shy away from picking a specific flavor of Christianity, and don’t affiliate with other, smaller religious groups like Hindus or Mormons. They are also uncomfortable describing their views as atheist or agnostic.

Instead, when they are faced with a question about religious preference by a pollster, they check the box next to the words, “nothing in particular.”

These are part of, but not identical to, the famous religious “nones,” who now account for some quarter of Americans. That larger group includes the nothing in particulars, but also atheists and agnostics.

The nothing in particulars, however, out-none their fellow nones. They are the statistical equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders.

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, nothing in particulars were about 15% of the general population. A little more than a decade later, that share has jumped to 1 in 5 adults, or about 20%.

To put that in context, nothing in particulars are statistically the same size as evangelical Protestants or Roman Catholics. For every atheist on a survey, there are 4 nothing in particulars. For every Mormon, there are 20.

For this reason alone, they should be considered in their own category. But there’s more: While 44% of atheists have a four-year college degree, just 20% of nothing in particulars do — the lowest of any religious group in the United States today.

Atheists are twice as likely to make more than $100,000 per year as those in the nothing in particular category. And based on measures like attending a protest, working on a campaign or putting up a yard sign, nothing in particulars were half as likely to be politically active compared with atheists.

For those who track the electoral behavior of the largest faith-based voting blocs (white Protestants and Catholics), stability has been the theme. Voters in those camps have shifted just 2 to 3 percentage points toward the GOP since 2008. The nothing in particulars’ allegiances, however, have shifted dramatically in the last decade.

The Democratic Party used to be able to rely on receiving a huge share of the nothing in particular vote. Obama won this group by 43 points in 2008. That slipped to 35 points in his reelection bid in 2012, and the slide accelerated when Hillary Clinton was the nominee. Clinton earned 60% of their votes in 2016, while Trump garnered nearly 40%.

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