At this point, it’s become conventional wisdom that the president is losing support among white evangelical Protestants (WEPs). The conventional wisdom is wrong, though. It’s based on polling by the Public Research Religion Institute showing Donald Trump with sky-high approval among WEPs in March, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, but a 10-point drop a month later. Cue predictions of doom.
The president’s approval was sky-high across all demographics in March, because he was at the time enjoying what’s called, among demographers, the “rally around the flag” effort. As the country faced an emergency, many people who would normally stand against Trump found themselves looking to him for leadership. That effect was short-lived, of course, because this president couldn’t lead anyone out of a brown paper bag. Fact is, Trump’s approval among WEPs has returned to normal, and all things being equal, a return to normal means support among WEPs remains strong.
The thing about the debate over WEPs is that Trump can’t lose any of them. He’s alienated too many other voters. He’s not right about much, but he was correct when he told an interviewer recently that if he loses just 1 percent of WEPs, he’ll lose the election. He’s so conscious of the need to hold on to WEPs he’s sounding apocalyptic—as if the “pro-life moment” will end in fire and fury, along with the rest of the world, if Joe Biden wins.
One percent is probably hyperbole, but it raises a couple of interesting questions: are WEPs gettable, and if so, how many? Ronald Sider says yes, they’re gettable. In an op-ed for USA Today, the former head of Evangelicals for Social Action said progressive WEPs (yes, they exist) will vote for Biden no matter what, but if he wants more WEPs to support him, he should reach out with messages on abortion and religious freedom.
Meanwhile, Michael Wear, the faith outreach director for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, said recently that Hillary Clinton failed to reach out to any WEPs. The result was 16 percent voting for her. Biden, he said, could match Obama’s 26 percent. “Broad swaths of the faith community did not feel like the Democratic nominee was interested in their vote.” The result, he said, was Trump winning them by 81 percent.
I’m skeptical of the usefulness of outreach. Yes, Biden should do it for the sake of doing it, but are WEP voters going to vote for a Democrat based on whether or not he says the right things about abortion and religious liberty? Sider says Biden only has to say abortion should be rare, and that some religious institutions should be exempted from laws and court-rulings requiring equal treatment for the LGBTQ community. Call me crazy but that sounds a bit like gaslighting. Sider says these WEPs are not single-issue voters. If so, there are plenty of ways to rationalize voting for Biden.
If anything, it isn’t Biden who should compromise, it’s WEPs who should. Biden said last year that he supported repealing the 1976 Hyde Amendment, the provision of law barring federal funds from being used for abortions. Hyde is a traditional WEP threshold. Support it and you’re with us; oppose it and you’re against us. But that was before the new coronavirus pandemic turned everything about politics upside-down. The most recent multibillion-dollar bailout aimed at shoring up the economy sent millions of dollars to tax-exempt churches and tax-exempt religious schools. If public money can float a religious institution’s payroll, it can be used to pay for abortions.
Biden won’t touch that, of course, nor should he. But the question remains: Will reaching out to WEPs, thus making them “feel like the Democratic nominee was interested in their vote,” as Wear said, result in an extra 10 points in support to match Obama’s performance in 2012? Again, I’m skeptical. Obama had to reach out, because he was the first Black man with a decent shot at winning the presidency. Clinton, for her part, was already so despised by WEPs, I don’t blame her for not bothering. Biden, however, is a totally different candidate for the plainest of reasons: he’s a white man.
No matter how “progressive” they might be, WEPs are still hidebound creatures. God’s law is the law of nature, and according to the WEP worldview, hierarchies of power are natural: God over man, white over black, men over women, parents over kids. Obama, as a Black man, put in extra hours to overcome that worldview. Clinton, as a woman (and one already despised by WEPs at that), never had a chance, so didn’t bother. Biden, I suspect, can follow Clinton’s example, put in zero work, but still come out 10 points ahead just for being a white man.
So much of “political strategy” is merely finding new ways of talking about old things like prejudice and bigotry. It’s been a long time since they worked for Democrats.