Why Trump’s hold on evangelicals is so hard for DeSantis and Haley to break

Former President Donald Trump greets the crowd at a campaign rally Saturday Dec. 16, 2023, in Durham, N.H.

Former President Donald Trump greets the crowd at a campaign rally on Saturday December 16, 2023, in Durham, New Hampshire.Reba Saldanha/APCNN — 

The Iowa caucus on Monday will provide the first test of whether Donald Trump’s secret weapon in the 2016 GOP presidential nomination contest – his strong support among blue-collar evangelical Christians – is still working for him in 2024.

All signs suggest the answer is: yes.

The biggest surprise in Trump’s march to the nomination in 2016 was how many White evangelical Christians voted for a thrice-married casino-owning New Yorker who had previously expressed liberal views on social issues such as abortion. The key to Trump’s breakthrough among evangelical Christians was his commanding support among the members of that community without a college degree, who supported him then in much greater numbers than those with advanced education.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (L) takes a question from an audience member at a campaign event at The Grass Wagon on January 13, 2024 in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

DeSantis is fighting for his political life along Iowa’s icy campaign trail

This time, the former president is running better in national polling than in the 2016 contest among virtually every major demographic group across the party. But blue-collar evangelicals could once again prove a crucial line of defense for Trump in the early states, including Iowa, where voters are more engaged in the race and the results will determine whether his remaining rivals can seriously threaten him for the nomination.

As Texas Sen. Ted Cruz did when he ran against Trump in the 2016 race, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pinned his hopes this year largely on mobilizing Iowa’s large number of evangelical Christian conservatives. Like Cruz, DeSantis has staked out the far right flank on virtually every cultural issue in the race and made the case to evangelicals that they can’t trust Trump to deliver on the issues they care most about, including banning abortion and restricting options for transgender young people to participate in school sports or receive gender-affirming care. Late Friday night, DeSantis’ campaign announced he had obtained endorsements from 150 “faith leaders” across Iowa; many of the state’s most prominent social conservatives have rallied around him.

Trump has sent mixed signals on abortion, at times refusing to explicitly state that as president he would support a national ban on the procedure, and at other points signaling that he would try to negotiate a national legislative limit that satisfies abortion opponents. But running against Trump from the right on social issues by all indications is even tougher now for DeSantis than it was for Cruz eight years ago – even with all the endorsements the Florida governor has accumulated.

DeSantis is “saying what he would do, but people every day, even now, see Trump actually fighting on all these things,” said Gary Bauer, a long-time social conservative leader and former GOP presidential candidate in 2000 who now serves on a faith advisory board to Trump’s campaign. “And the four years of his presidency, even though some things didn’t get done, he was always striving to do it.”

The magnitude of DeSantis’ challenge was underscored by the final pre-caucus Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa poll released Saturday night. Beyond Trump’s strong overall lead, the survey showed the former president attracting 51% support from Iowa evangelicals, far more than he drew in 2016. DeSantis lagged far behind with those voters, drawing just 22% of them. That was a key reason DeSantis had fallen into third place in the survey behind former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has devoted less effort to Iowa.

Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Nikki Haley.

Iowa’s most important poll has set the expectations for the GOP caucuses

The Iowa poll, like most other recent surveys, did not release results tracking the educational gap among evangelical voters in the GOP race. But several media and GOP polls that provided me detailed results last year found Trump running considerably better among evangelicals without a degree than those with advanced education, just as he did when he first won the nomination.

Trump’s breakthrough among blue-collar evangelicals in the 2016 contest was a key component of his larger success at reorienting the axis of GOP politics. In the two presidential contests immediately before Trump, the most important fault line in the Republican race had been between voters who identified as evangelical Christians and those who did not.

Iowa quickly set the mold in each of those races. GOP contenders Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 won the caucuses with strong support from evangelical Christian conservatives. That initial success anointed them as the champion of evangelicals and they ran well among those voters through the rest of the primary calendar.

But once they were defined as the evangelical favorite, Huckabee and Santorum struggled to build meaningful support beyond that community. John McCain and Mitt Romney, the GOP nominees in 2008 and 2012, beat them with strikingly similar coalitions. McCain and Romney each won only about one-third of voters who identified as evangelical Christians, but captured about half of the GOP voters who did not identify as evangelicals, according to cumulative analyses of the exit polls in those years conducted by Gary Langer of ABC News.

The 2016 race with Trump and Cruz as the central combatants started off along similar tracks. Nearly two-thirds of caucus attendees in 2016 defined themselves as evangelical or “born again” Christians, and Cruz won the contest by beating Trump by double-digits among them, according to the entrance poll conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations including CNN.

But the 2016 race quickly veered onto a different trajectory – like one of the timeline variants in a superhero movie. Like Santorum and Huckabee, Cruz struggled through the remainder of the race among voters who were not evangelicals. But because of Trump’s success at cutting the GOP electorate along an educational axis, Cruz also struggled to match their performance among evangelicals in the key states.

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Republican presidential nomination and delegates, explained

Exit polls in those states found that Trump in 2016 rarely exceeded one-third of the vote among evangelicals holding at least a four-year college degree, usually allowing Cruz either to beat him or to run about even among them. But in states as diverse as Nevada, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Michigan, Mississippi and North Carolina, Trump won 45% or more among evangelicals without a four-year college degree, beating Cruz soundly among them, the exit polls found.

This dynamic proved most important in South Carolina, the state that has picked the winner in every contested GOP nomination https://berdasarkanapa.com/ race since 1980 (except for 2012). Cruz viewed South Carolina as central to his hopes of stopping Trump because evangelicals are such a large share of the vote there. But Trump won the state by capturing 44% of evangelicals without a degree, double his share among the South Carolina evangelicals with a degree. Trump’s win in South Carolina effectively ended Cruz’s challenge.

This year, DeSantis will likely need to shake Trump’s hold on evangelical voters if he is to finish well enough in Iowa to remain a viable candidate after Monday. The Florida governor has made the case to Iowa evangelicals that they can no longer trust Trump to take conservative positions on social issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, an argument amplified by his wide range of evangelical supporters in the state. “There’s just a lot of issues that you’re like: ‘So what are we gonna get this time if [Trump] does win?’” said Bob Vander Plaats, the president and CEO of The Family Leader, who has endorsed DeSantis.

But even Vander Plaats acknowledges that the perpetual fight between Trump and Democrats – plus the multiple criminal indictments of the former president that many Republicans consider politically motivated – has made it difficult to convince conservatives he has somehow abandoned them. Asked if DeSantis can win evangelicals in Iowa on Monday, Vander Plaats pointedly responded: “I think he’ll do very well.”

Compared to DeSantis, Haley isn’t betting on evangelical voters nearly as heavily in Iowa. Like Rubio in the 2016 caucus, she is counting on maximizing her vote in the state’s urban and suburban centers. Nor does Haley need big gains among evangelicals in New Hampshire, where they comprise only about one-fourth of the vote and she is likewise relying mostly on a well-educated, suburban audience.

But South Carolina still looms as a make-or-break contest for either DeSantis, if he defies the polls in Iowa, or Haley, if she emerges after the first two states as Trump’s most plausible remaining rival. In South Carolina, over six-in-ten voters in each of the past three GOP presidential primaries have identified as evangelical Christians, and each time evangelicals without a college degree have outnumbered those who have obtained one.

Even in the most optimistic scenario for DeSantis or Haley, Trump’s hold on evangelicals without a college degree looks like a rock in the road for them. There is no way for them to maneuver around it. If either of them is to truly threaten Trump for the nomination, they will need to find some way to at least partially dislodge it.

Robert P. Jones – founder and president of the Public Religion Research Institute, who has written several books on conservative Christians – says the education gap in the evangelical community has grown more pronounced because Trump has focused more political debates on the issues revolving around American identity that exacerbate it, such as immigration and race relations.

“Trump has really brought to the fore this overt appeal to an ethno-religious identity as the core of what it means to be an American, and protecting that as the core of what it means to be a Republican, and that I think has made [the evangelical community] break more sharply along education lines,” Jones said.

Results from the PRRI’s latest American Values Survey, an annual examination of US views mostly on cultural issues, underscores that widening gap. Previously unpublished results from the 2023 survey results provided to CNN found that White evangelical Christians with and without a college degree lean toward conservative positions on the Trump-era GOP’s key messages about cultural and demographic change. But on many of those questions, the two-thirds of evangelicals without a degree are much more receptive to those messages than the one-third of them with college credentials.

For instance, while over two-thirds of evangelicals without a degree agreed with the harsh statement that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background” less than half of those with advanced education concurred. College-educated evangelicals were much more likely than those without degrees to agree that generations of slavery and discrimination have provided Whites unfair economic advantages.

In addition, evangelicals without a degree were much more responsive to arguments that the problems facing America justified a turn away from the nation’s small-d democratic traditions. Nearly half of evangelicals without a degree agreed that “we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.” By contrast, over three-fourths of evangelical Christians with degrees rejected that idea. Maybe most important, over three-fifths of evangelicals without a degree agreed that “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world” while nearly three-fifths of those with degrees rejected that idea.

Most evangelicals with and without degrees rebuffed the idea that Trump in 2020 broke the law or that his reelection would threaten American democracy. But a much larger group of evangelicals without a degree (66%) than those with one (just 49%) expressed favorable views of Trump.

In a much discussed recent article, The New York Times cited other survey data suggesting that Trump’s strength was greatest among Americans who identify as evangelicals mostly on cultural rather than religious grounds and do not regularly attend church services. But Jones said in the PRRI’s findings, education is a much more important predictor of receptivity to Trump and his core themes among evangelicals than religious practice. Jones said PRRI’s polling has found that the share of White evangelicals who attend church weekly has declined only slightly in the decade between 2013 and 2023. And he said, the 2023 survey did not find major differences in attitude toward Trump (or on most of these broader social questions) among evangelicals who do and do not attend services regularly.

Where Jones and The New York Times analysis agree is that Trump’s strength among evangelicals is rooted less in his commitment to policy orthodoxy on a long list of traditional social issues, much less his embodiment of the personal values cultural conservatives say they revere. Instead, both agree he is benefiting because so many in that community view him as a fighter against an array of interconnected forces – Democrats, the federal government, the media – that they see as steering the nation away from its “traditional values.”

“This lean into authoritarianism is about a ‘desperate times’ political ethic” among conservative evangelical Christians, said Jones. While the personal values of political leaders “was all they could talk about in the early 2000s,” conservative evangelicals have now shifted “in favor of an ends-justifies-the-means ethic,” he added. “If you decide the stakes are high enough the means cease to matter, which is where I believe evangelicals have found themselves – especially if you believe God intended for us to be a Christian nation.”

Bauer, who ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, doesn’t agree that supporting Trump requires evangelicals to embrace authoritarianism or renounce their personal values. But he largely shares Jones’ diagnosis of what has soldered those voters to Trump so loyally. “There’s a bonding there between him and the people that would vote for him that comes when you’ve been in a fight and you are losing, and a guy comes along…and he jumps in the ring with you,” Bauer said. “They remember that.”

Monday’s results in Iowa will begin to gauge how powerful that connection remains three years after Trump left office in a maelstrom of violence and turmoil. Even in historically bitter cold across Iowa, the late indications show no signs that bond is cracking.

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