An old friend expressed confusion last night after reading the new Pew Research Poll focusing on white evangelicals. “Where’s the surprise?” he asked.
There is no surprise. Not much, anyway. What we have here is a case of Lucy managing to pull the football out from under poor old Charlie Brown, again.
We go through this every four years: there’s a flurry of articles wondering Is This The End Of The Religious Right?, pointing to the emergence of a new liberal wing of the evangelical movement, or declaring that this is the year evangelicals are going to totes break up with the GOP nominee.
And then Lucy pulls the football and right about three-quarters of evangelicals vote for the GOP nominee, whoever he is. Currently, 78% of white evangelicals support Donald Trump (identical to the number that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012). John McCain? 74%. George W. Bush 2000 and 2004? 68 and 78%, respectively. And despite the whopper of zombie lies told by Ted Cruz, no, 54 million evangelical voters did not stay home in 2012, rather than vote for Romney. In fact, white evangelicals have made up around one-quarter of the electorate ever since 2000.
According to Pew, that number will be a bit lower this time around: about 20%, by their estimate. White evangelicals are losing ground to non-white voters just like all whites, and to the religiously unaffiliated, just like all Christians. Those unaffiliated voters—the “Nones”—now rival white evangelicals in size. About two-thirds of them support Hillary Clinton, making them a solid Democratic constituency, though Clinton surely would like to run up even higher totals.
In some ways, you could see 2016 as the Evangelicals-vs.-Nones election. The two groups will approach rough parity as Sanders voters get behind Clinton, however grudgingly. Because the Nones are somewhat more evenly distributed across the nation than evangelicals, a stalemate favors Clinton. It does Trump no good to ring up a super-majority in Mississippi when Clinton can flip North Carolina, for example.
My colleague Neil J. Young argues that white evangelical leaders will have to reckon with the political machine they helped build. That seems right, especially since their followers’ support for Trump is even deeper than it was for Romney: 36% of white evangelicals strongly support Trump, compared to 26% for Romney. And there Lucy goes again, except this time she’s pulling the football out from poor old Russell Moore.
Journalists and even many religion analysts seem to have a hard time reconciling themselves to the idea that these days, “evangelical” is as much a political marker as it is religious. You can see that in the wide assortment of issues on which evangelicals prefer Trump to Clinton—everything from abortion to Supreme Court picks to dealing with government bureaucracy and lobbyists. Interestingly enough, given how poisonously divisive Trump has been on racial issues, the narrowest gap is on exactly that question. 44% think Clinton could handle race better, while 46% think Trump could.
Others, shall we say, do not. Buried deep in the poll summary, we find that black Protestants oppose Trump 89-8, which is nearly the 93-6 edge African-Americans in general gave Obama over Romney. Likewise, Hispanic Catholics favor Clinton 77-16, compared to the overall 71-27 Hispanic vote in 2012.
Since both those groups are projected to make up the same portion of the electorate in 2016, if not larger, it might not be white evangelicals or Nones who determine the outcome this November.
Don’t look now, Lucy: Charlie Brown may have traded in football for fútbol. Surprise!