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May 16, 2016

GOD’S OLD PARTY | Why Evangelical Voters Still Matter

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This election has surfaced sharp division in what once appeared to be a monolithic evangelical voting bloc. Just as the GOP Establishment failed to influence voters’ support for a conventional candidate, evangelical leaders—almost all opposed to Trump—seemed to have failed to influence evangelical voters—many who do support Trump. In Pew surveys conducted at the beginning of this year, half of white evangelicals believed Trump would make a good or great president.

While it’s fair at this point to say that Trump has wrested Republican voters from the Republican elite, it is too simplistic to conclude that Trump has won the evangelical vote despite opposition from the evangelical elite. We can make the case that Trump wields the popular mandate to strong-arm Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee to come begging at his feet to salvage what remains of the GOP brand. But it’s unclear to me that Trump can do the same to evangelical leaders, even if he wants to. Unlike the GOP, the evangelical community is not bound to procure a political candidate every four years. Many evangelical leaders do not flock to Trump because political activism—even for the party evangelicals historically side with—is not the source of their relevance.

I want to make the point that not all evangelicals support Trump and that he should be concerned about this fact in the general election.

The entire hurrah about Trump’s favor with evangelical voters is a bit misleading. According to a Barna survey, Trump has a net favorability rating of -38 percent amongst evangelicals. Those who like him seem to like him a lot. But those who don’t like him really don’t like him. His median evangelical supporter is a white, male, rural, sporadic churchgoer with low education background. By way of contrast, the subset of evangelical voters who view Trump very negatively are regular church-going Christians. These are what I call “core” evangelicals who do closely align with evangelical leaders.  They seek to emulate their church leaders, read their books, attend their conferences, and evaluate politicians according to their teachings. As American Christians, these evangelicals identify themselves as Christian first. They do care about moral character. They are not all white. For many, being anti-Hillary is not a justification to be pro-Trump. Which means that they may simply abstain come November. One organization called My Faith Votes has a mission of mobilizing 25 million Christian voters for the general election. I have a hard time believing that will happen in a Trump vs. Hillary showdown.


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“His median evangelical supporter is a white, male, rural, sporadic churchgoer with low education background. By way of contrast, the subset of evangelical voters who view Trump very negatively are regular church-going Christians.”


Still, Trump has done well with the evangelical demographic. He mobilized them to form an impressive winning coalition in the GOP primaries that did just fine, thank you. But in the general election, the margin for alienating voters from your own party is significantly smaller. 40 percent of Republican votes does not come close to winning a general election. Trump needs most, if not all Republicans, on board. He may have garnered more evangelical support than all the other Republican candidates, but come November, he can no longer rely only on the fraction that already likes him. He needs to stop alienating committed evangelicals, in much the same way that he can no longer afford to alienate Hispanics and women for the long race.

Trump is optimistic about his electoral chances with the people supporting him now. A Quinnipiac poll released just this week shows Trump and Clinton neck to neck in three critical swing states: Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Since 1960, no candidate has won the presidency without winning two out of three of those states. Still, Hillary is the favorite. In national polls, she is up by several percentage points. Although it is too early to predict what will happen in the next several months, the polls indicate that Trump has to play to catch up.

And so far, Trump hasn’t acted with any urgency to build bridges. Trump recently tweeted, “Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!” Moore is a reputable Christian leader who heads the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has a membership of nearly 16 million people. Trump was responding to Moore’s criticism of him in an op-ed in the New York Times. In that article, Moore also noted that the contours of Christianity in America are taking on a “multigenerational, theologically robust, ethnically diverse” form. The evangelical movement in America is moving away from “white, suburban institutional evangelicalism.” I wonder: has Trump considered this changing evangelical landscape in building a winning coalition?

That Trump made it this far with the number of people he’s alienated is a feat in itself. But it’s a shame that he can’t see the value in being charitable and winsome towards those who don’t like him. He may have suspended political gravity to be where he is today. But come November, numbers are still numbers. If Trump understands the math, he may be more wary of insulting his way to the presidency. And he might just come to appreciate that all evangelical votes matter in forging a winning general election coalition.