Update: I changed the title of the post to a question because of the uncertainty raised as we receive new data. The post is also updated. The results may continue to change as additional information on turnout becomes available, as is often the case in presidential elections.
One of the headlines out of last week’s election was that white evangelicals backed Donald Trump big league. While it’s true that most white evangelicals who voted supported Trump, many also stayed home. As the data comes in, the key will be to watch turnout.
Exit polls show that 81 percent voted for Trump. This is stronger than the support for either of the two previous Republican candidates.
But exit polls don’t tell the whole story. Because exit polls can only describe those who actually voted, they don’t include citizens who decided to stay home. This year, national turnout was low. Initial reports had turnout around 55 percent; updated turnout is around 58 percent of eligible citizens voting. However, if the past is predictive, this estimate over-estimates the number of votes for president.
In terms of total votes, Donald Trump received slightly less than John McCain but more than Mitt Romney. A few percentage points in turnout can make a big difference. If turnout is just a few points lower, then Trump could receive fewer votes than Romney, too. If it’s higher, then it could be a record in the other direction.
All of this depends on the assumption that the white evangelical vote has remained steady over recent years (this depends on who and how it’s measured) and that evangelical turnout follows national turnout (which it does, as seen in the percentage in the exit polls).
It’s likely that many of those who stayed home could not pull the lever for Trump or Hillary Clinton. In previous elections, most voters who didn’t vote for the Republican voted for the Democrat. This year, Clinton received a record low percentage of the white evangelical vote. This combined with lower turnout would make the Clinton vote the lowest in recent history.
Surveys that are currently in the field will give a better picture of how many Americans decided “not voting” was their best option in 2016.