Posted on April 7, 2020

Why Trump Is Reliant on White Evangelicals

Jason Husser, Brookings, April 6, 2020

Since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory over Jimmy Carter, Republican presidential candidates have benefitted from enthusiastic support of evangelical Christian voters, specifically white evangelicals. As demographics in the United States continue to shift, election analysts must understand the scale of evangelicals’ role in the Republican coalition, especially in swing states. Combining a few considerations about the size, demographic makeup, and voting behaviors of white evangelical Christians with an analysis of voters in an important swing state helps clarify why this electoral group is essential for any Republican coalition during the 2020 race to the White House.

Size, demographics and voting habits of white evangelicals

About one in four American adults belongs to an evangelical Christian denomination according to a Pew Research Center 2014 study, making evangelicals the most common religious group just ahead of those without a religious affiliation. {snip} The National Election Pool exit polls found 26% of voters self-identified as white evangelical Christians in 2016. Beyond their total numbers, 64% of Evangelicals reported church attendance at least weekly compared to 35% of other Christians, suggesting a potential for a higher frequency of politically relevant messaging.

Evangelicals are demographically distinct on several politically relevant dimensions. The following numbers are based on the author’s analysis of a 2018 AP/NORC national survey. Among registered voters in the Census Region South, 21% identify as white evangelicals compared to 13%, 14% and 8% in the West, Midwest and Northeast, respectively. White evangelicals were less likely in the sample to report income over $150,000 and bachelor degree or higher education levels. They also tended to be older. Among registered voters under 40 in the survey, 8% were white evangelicals compared to 19% among those over 40, pointing to a long-term problem for Republicans without a more diverse electoral coalition.

{snip} The 2016 National Election Pool Exit Survey had Donald Trump leading Hillary Clinton among white evangelicals by a staggering 79% to 16%. In that exit survey, white evangelicals composed 46% of Trump’s coalition compared to 9% of Clinton’s coalition. The aforementioned 2018 AP/NORC survey found white Evangelical voters were roughly twice as likely to approve of Donald Trump’s job as president as other voters. While only a small percentage of white evangelical protestants consistently vote for Democrats or identify as liberal, they tend to cluster in certain churches and, consequently, could have substantial localized electoral impact.

Different surveys yield somewhat different numbers, but the overall direction is consistent: white evangelical protestants are a major component of President Trump’s coalition. The group tends to be older, of slightly lower socioeconomic status, and concentrated in the South.


Evangelicals: Key for shoring the Republican base and persuading the middle

Issue alignment changes depicted above may reflect voters’ more general sense of overall ideological leaning, but the fact that religious effects vary by issue suggests that, for many evangelical voters, Republican positions on specific issues make a difference.  Being an evangelical helps to fortify the issue alignment between the Republican Party and their base of Republican voters, especially on abortion. However, evangelical identity has an even more important role among voters outside of the Republican partisan base. Evangelical identity has its largest and most electorally relevant impact by encouraging issue alignment between unaffiliated voters and the Republican Party orthodoxy. Even among white registered Democrats, being an evangelical moves the needle at the margins for the Republican Party, at least enough to secure a small percentage of votes with potential to change the outcome of close elections.

Given the number of white evangelicals in the electorate (according to CNN exit polls, they composed 38% of the North Carolina electorate in 2016), the slim historical margins of victory in swing states, and the impact associated with being an evangelical on partisan preferences, Republicans are reliant on the group’s support and mobilization in order to accumulate 270 Electoral College votes. Though President Trump is a candidate whose personal behavior has often been at odds with the values espoused by many evangelicals, any potential path he has to remain in the White House after January 20, 2021 must pass between the pews of white evangelical churches. In turn, Democratic Party leaders have opportunities to interrupt that passage by paying attention to evangelicals, especially unaffiliated evangelicals persuadable to add their votes to the 2020 Democratic coalition.