vision 2020

White Evangelicals Are Still the Heart of Trump’s Base

Donald Trump at a National Prayer Breakfast. Photo: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Now and then you hear reports that Donald Trump’s hold on certain demographic groups is slipping. Here’s a good example from today’s USA Today:

President Donald Trump’s support among white evangelicals has dropped nearly 10 percentage points since taking office in January 2017, according to new data from the Pew Research Center released Monday …

Trump has been a divisive figure within the evangelical community, with some prominent evangelicals — like Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University — staunchly defending Trump and his policies. 

Others, like founder of Living Proof Ministries Beth Moore, who has a large following of mostly female evangelicals, openly oppose Trump. And some leaders, like Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback megachurch in Orange County, California, which serves more than 20,000 congregants on a weekly basis, have expressed mixed feelings about Trump. 

You get the impression, then, that Trump’s support in this specific demographic — his best — has dropped as Evangelical leaders argue over his “divisive” views and behavior. That’s very misleading.

Pew did indeed show a 78 percent approval rating for Trump among white Evangelicals in February of 2017. That, however, was a point at which Trump’s overall approval ratings hit their absolute peak. The 69 percent Pew showed in its “new data” was from mid-January of this year, near (but still before) the end of the government shutdown, when Trump’s approval ratings were lower than they are now, and certainly lower than they were in the earliest days of his presidency.

Add in the usual risk of statistical noise and there’s really no evidence that Trump’s doing worse among white Evangelicals (relative to the rest of the country), which is probably why Pew’s own headline for the same report was: “Evangelical approval of Trump remains high, but other religious groups are less supportive.”

What can we actually learn from this relatively new data? There are a couple of interesting things. First of all, Trump consistently does better with regular churchgoing white Evangelicals than with less observant members of this group (70 percent of weekly churchgoers approve of Trump’s job performance, versus 65 percent of others). This finding suggests that MAGA people aren’t just a bunch of rednecks who identify as Evangelical but are as heathenish as Trump in their actual belief systems and conduct. The same is true, interestingly enough, of another relatively pro-Trump religious demographic, white Catholics. Being churchy and being Trumpy seem to go hand in hand (not so much, however, with white mainline Protestants, an at-best-lukewarm group for Trump).

Second, there is continuing evidence that support for Trump among white Evangelicals is not just a product of some single-issue obsession with abortion or the composition of the courts. Pew found about three-fourths of white Evangelicals favoring Trump’s pet border-wall project. Even factoring in partisanship, that’s remarkable, since that level of support is higher than Trump’s overall approval rating in this demographic.

All in all, as we head deeper into the 2020 presidential election cycle, there’s no reason whatsoever for Team Trump to doubt the reliability of white Evangelicals as the heart of his base. And we can expect the president and his congressional and media allies to keep up a drumbeat on issues thought to motivate them to show up at the polls in very high numbers, from Islamophobic themes to overwrought “infanticide” alarms to more immigration “emergencies.” Most important of all is the general idea that Trump is protecting traditionally-minded people from cultural change, whether it’s coming from the border or from college campuses or from Hollywood or Washington or media outlets. White Evangelicals have come to view themselves as a besieged minority, and Donald Trump, for all his faults, has committed to a common desire to take America back to its days of greatness in the 1950s. That’s not going to go away between now and November of 2020.

White Evangelicals Are Still the Heart of Trump’s Base