Let’s look at the bad news from this Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) tracking survey first: despite remarkably lousy-but-stable favorability numbers (41% approve, 55% disapprove), Pres. Trump has a strong chance of being re-elected in November, unless the situation changes significantly between now and then.
To understand why from a religious perspective, consider three factors: partisanship, race, and region. Republicans, whites, and residents of the South and Midwest are most likely to support Trump. White evangelicals tend to be conservative, giving the president a strong base in the South—this much is not surprising. Less obvious is that after Mormons, white Catholics and white mainline Protestants are Trump’s strongest supporters in the religious economy.
As it happens, there’s a lot of voters like this in Pennsylvania and the industrial Midwest. In short, southern white evangelicals and northern Catholics and mainliners made it possible for Trump to swing Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania just enough to take the election in 2016.
Meanwhile, Trump falters in the Northeast and West, which are more secular, but also have more adherents of smaller religions: Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists. The first part of that equation—the secular part—is probably the most important, given just how small those smaller religions are. Race also plays a part, with coastal Catholics being generally more diverse, and white evangelicals playing a smaller role.
I would caution anyone who wants to take all of this as evidence of religious faith’s inherent conservatism. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate faith out from all of the other social strands included in this report. For example, men are more likely to support Trump no matter what the religious tradition, with the starkest divide in Mormon households, of all places, in which 64% of Mormon men hold a favorable view as opposed to 45% of Mormon women who do.
Mainline Protestants are often lampooned as half-communist barking moonbats by conservative Christians, but in fact, they offer fairly strong support for Pres. Trump (48%). But mainliners are also older and whiter than most Americans, and generally speaking, the lower their level of education, the more conservative they tend to be. By the same token, white Catholics in the Midwest are well-represented among rural residents and members of the white no-college working class, both of which are firmly in the Trump column. So which matters more, religion, race, or social location? The point is they all tend to go together.
That being said, it can’t be denied that religion plays some role in these outcomes. White evangelicals of any age or any location in the nation tend to be more conservative than their unaffiliated counterparts. In fact, so do Black evangelicals, even compared to other Black voters. So there must be something about hanging around in the pews that prompts some people to shift to the right.
Can Trump pull it off again in 2020? The short answer is yes, he’s got a pretty good shot of it. According to PRRI, he has decent numbers among the white suburbanites who will make up the swing vote of the election (to the extent that the “swing vote” is a meaningful category). That’s far from a guarantee, however, especially with a candidate this volatile. Democrats also have a realistic opening to deny Trump re-election.
Let’s play faith outreach director in the six states PRRI mentions as toss-ups, in reverse order of their support for Trump:
Michigan: with an overview approval of 42%, this is Trump’s most likely state to see shift back to the Democratic column. Urban residents hate him (30% approval), and so do the religiously unaffiliated (32%). On the flip side, 60% of white evangelicals are behind the president here. That leaves white mainline Protestants (48%) and white Catholics (46%) at the dividing line. I’ve often scoffed at the value of religious outreach in presidential campaigns, but not here. If I were working for a campaign, I’d make sure to find a way to get the candidate to a union rally and a mass, and not necessarily in that order.
Florida is the black hole of campaign strategies, so closely divided and so filled with natural potholes and man-made land mines that it’s almost impossible to predict what’s going to happen. Nonetheless, smart money’s on white evangelicals going for Trump, probably along with white mainliners (52%) and white Catholics (51%). A better bet would be to connect with Hispanic Catholics (35%) and the sizable religiously unaffiliated (34%). Spotlight the Catholic congregations assisting Puerto Rican refugees and highlight Mike Pence’s threat to reproductive rights and education.
Pennsylvania: With its highly religious—and highly conservative—central region balancing Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a tough nut to crack. For a faith outreach director it would probably be best to do little more than the ordinary outreach to keep things close in the York-Lancaster-Harrisburg corridor, and try like hell to turn out the Philadelphia suburbs. Expect a lot of stops at mainline churches on the Main Line.
North Carolina: Second only to Florida on this list for social complexity, but one thing is for certain: at 73% approval for Trump, North Carolina’s white evangelicals aren’t going anywhere. Religiously, the most likely scenario for a Trump loss is an exceptional GOTV effort by William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign—North Carolina being his old stomping ground, of course. In a secular sense, it will come down to whether Democrats could motivate the highly-educated voters of the Research Triangle. If they could keep the Baptists at home and turn out students on the numerous college campuses, Trump would be in trouble.
Arizona: Like Florida, Arizona has a high percentage of religiously unaffiliated citizens: nearly half say they belong to no faith, or are “nothing in particular.” Combined with a low approval among Catholics (36%), this leaves an opening for Democrats. If they’re smart, Democratic organizers will spend a lot of time organizing Latino Catholics and reminding the unaffiliated of Trump’s love for the authoritarian former Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Wisconsin: You don’t know how much it pains me to report that of all the swing states, my own is the one with the highest support for the president (45%). Wisconsin has been balanced on a knife’s edge in recent years with the urban cores in Madison and Milwaukee falling into the Democratic column, and the conservative suburban WOW (Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington) counties going Red. Some of those heavily Catholic suburbs have been hesitant in their embrace of Trump, however. The trick here will be to drive Trump’s negatives up in those areas while keeping his opponent’s positives up in the cities. Best case scenario for Dems would be fore Bernie Sanders to win the nomination, thereby automatically scooping up the Prius vote in Madison, followed by a visit with the liberal Archbishop Cupich in Chicago. Trump would be infuriated and pick a fight with Cupich; Pope Francis would come to his defense, Waukesha voters would be disgusted, and that would be that.
That’s a silly scenario, of course, but the serious point is that none of these states is a sure thing for Trump; 45% approval is enough to win re-election, but it’s not great. For what it’s worth, my thoroughly unscientific prediction is that Democrats will take back Michigan and Pennsylvania, with a good shot at North Carolina and Arizona. Florida and Wisconsin? Maybe God knows. I sure don’t.