Donald Trump is losing the 2020 election, but you’d hardly know it by looking at the latest survey of various religious groups by PRRI (and by “various religious groups,” I really mean “mostly white Christians”).
PRRI says that 66% of white evangelicals look favorably on Pres. Trump, as do 44% of white mainline Protestants and 48% of white Catholics. By comparison, only 36% of nonwhite Protestants and 37% of religiously unaffiliated think highly of the president. To be clear, PRRI’s question is about the president’s favorability—“Do you like Donald Trump?“—as opposed to the more usual polling question, “Do you approve of Pres. Trump’s job performance?” It’s a slightly different way to ask about opinions, but as CNN’s Harry Enten argues, favorability scores are actually more predictive of election results than approval ratings. (Trump’s approval ratings aren’t great, either.)
Overall, Trump isn’t a very well-liked president: 54% have an unfavorable opinion of him, and 43% do like him. (By comparison, Obama’s numbers at about the same point in his presidency were nearly reversed: 52% favorable, 46% unfavorable.) Trump got a brief boost at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but now his support seems to be recessing to mean. Alarmingly for him, that means an 11-point drop in white evangelical support, and an astonishing 18-point drop among white mainliners.
Still, this leaves 66% of white evangelicals in his camp. That leads to two perhaps contradictory questions. First, why are those numbers so high, given who Trump is and what Trump does? And second, will his white evangelical base ever break with him?
PRRI answers the first question by saying that in Republican states with high COVID rates, Trump’s favorability is 49%. Elsewhere, it’s 40%. In other words, Trump hasn’t been damaged much by COVID in his base states, because more people in those states agree with his handling of the pandemic. That could change as the economic destruction wrought by the virus becomes more apparent, or as it returns in a second wave in cities or spreads into small towns and rural areas, where Trump’s support has been strong.
Outside of the Republican core, Trump is getting hammered. According to PRRI, only 41% of voters like him in Democratic states, and just 38% in the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. And overall, things are looking grim for the president. According to one tracking poll, if you convert the approval ratings on Trump’s handling of coronavirus into state-level electoral results, the model predicts a 511 vote blowout for Democrats in the Electoral College.
Final results very likely won’t resemble anything like that, of course. White evangelicals probably aren’t going to suddenly get religion and reject Trump, either. It has little, if anything, to do with their faith: they simply tend to be packed into Republican states, where Trump’s sway remains strong. Conversely, white mainline Protestants tend to be concentrated in Democratic or battleground states. Social geography is going to play a very strong role in this election, in other words, most likely stronger than theology.
Trump may indeed lose a few points among his white evangelical base, which could cause serious headaches for his campaign in places like North Carolina or Georgia. But there are bigger threats to his reelection.
For one thing, you may have noticed that Trump’s 66% favorability rating among white evangelicals is quite a bit lower than the 80% who voted for him in 2016. The explanation is obvious: a fair number of white evangelicals don’t really like Trump, but they vote for him anyway. If the president’s ratings on coronavirus continue to crater, however, it’s easy to imagine many in that bloc sitting out the election in November. Given the ferocity of the Democratic base since 2018, that could prove fatal to his campaign.
Second, any movement away from Trump is a problem for him. He needs to make up for ground he lost among suburban and women voters and hang on to the battleground states he won in 2016 if he’s to have any hope of winning in the fall. In order to be on track for reelection, he would have to be improving his numbers with white Christians, and it’s just not happening.
Last, Trump is taking a huge hit among older voters, dropping 14 points in favorability with those 65 or older. Unscientifically, this may be what’s causing the fall in his religious numbers. Because older voters tend to be more religious than younger ones, a decline in one set will very likely be reflected in the other. This spells big trouble for Trump in the battleground states, most of which skew older than average. Without Florida, for example, there is simply no viable path for him to win the Electoral College.
Trump’s opponent Joe Biden has his own challenges, but the president himself is in deep trouble. Despite what it may look like on the surface, he is simply not hitting his marks among white Christians. His white evangelical base may not exactly turn on him, but they may also choose to stay home on November 3rd, which would be just as damaging. The armchair analysis after the fact will probably describe that as a victory for liberal religion, but more likely, it will be simply factors of age, location, and being sick of a terrible person and terrible president.