I’ve always been fond of the “Charlie Brown with the football” series from Peanuts. The premise is simple: Lucy is holding a football and she wants Charlie to kick it. Charlie is reluctant because he knows Lucy’s track record: she will yank the football away at the last minute. Still, every time Lucy convinces Charlie that this time will be different. But every time he runs toward the ball Lucy pulls it away sending Charlie flying into the air and landing flat on his back.
It’s the perfect analogy for the Democratic Party’s attempts to try and win back the white evangelical vote over the last four presidential elections. Every election cycle, social media is filled with discussions about how this year will be the one when white evangelicals will shift back (at least in part) toward the Democratic party. And every single election they’re let down.
In 2008, in a landslide victory for Senator Barack Obama over Senator John McCain, 78% of white evangelicals cast their ballot for the Republican.
In 2016, after the nomination of a twice-divorced businessman who had affairs with adult film stars, swore on national television, and declared bankruptcy multiple times, 78% of white evangelicals cast their ballot for Donald Trump.
And, even after Donald Trump essentially ended a program that allowed refugees fleeing religious persecution to legally enter the United States, denigrated soldiers who had fought and died for our country, and bungled the response to Covid-19 in almost every possible way, 78% of white evangelicals voted for Trump again, if all the exit polls are to be believed.
To think that any confluence of events would lead to only 70% of white evangelicals to vote for the Republican in 2024 is pure folly.
But, why is this the case? Despite the dozens of advocacy groups that have sprung up over the last few years to try and “peel off” white evangelicals, why have they, by and large, failed to move the needle in any significant way away from the GOP?
The answer is simply that this group of voters are Republicans first, white people second, and evangelicals third. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s simply not true to think of white evangelicals as an uneasy type of Republican—one that’s not sold on the GOP’s economic policy but votes with them because of gay marriage and abortion. The reality is this: the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals are Republicans, through and through.
In fact, if you take a careful look at polling data a conclusion becomes clear: white evangelical Republicans don’t care about abortion as much as everyone thinks they do. If Donald Trump’s job approval is the key metric, the most important factor for white evangelicals isn’t social issues, it’s Trump’s signature issue: immigration. There’s only one religious group in the United States where at least a third of adherents support family separation on the border, and that’s white evangelicals.
It may have been the case two decades ago that larger shares of white evangelicals could have been convinced to back a moderate Democrat in an election. But religious sorting is real and most evangelicals who didn’t align with the Republicans have left the pews. Those that are left are more religiously and politically conservative than ever before.
All of which doesn’t mean that the Democratic Party ought to stop its appeal to religious voters entirely, just that they need to switch targets. For instance, while Mainline Protestants have historically backed Republicans, they did shift toward Joe Biden by several percentage points in 2020.
But there’s an even bigger voting bloc out there that often gets overlooked. Many of those who were raised evangelical but left the church (for a variety of reasons) have become religiously unaffiliated—often called the “nones.” Their shift to the left in 2020 may be the story of this election cycle given the fact that three in ten Americans declare no religious affiliation.
However, it’s hard to escape the feeling that, no matter how much evidence can be mustered over the next four years, there will be lots of Democrats lying on their backs, having the football ripped away at the last possible moment by white evangelicals who just cannot stomach the thought of pulling the lever for anyone attached to the Democratic party. Nevertheless, my advice to the party’s strategists: ignore Lucy and her football.