June 27, 2020
White evangelical Protestants have been President Donald Trump’s most vocal and committed supporters throughout his presidency. They were critical to his election in 2016, accounting for one-third of his voters, and may determine whether he serves a second term. But a new poll suggests that some of Trump’s most devoted followers may not stick with him.
At this stage in his 2016 campaign, Trump was leading his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by a considerable margin among white evangelical voters — according to a poll by the Pew Research Center in July 2016 Trump had the support of 78 percent of the group — even as a substantial number still expressed reservations about his candidacy.
A new survey conducted by AEI finds that only 69 percent of white evangelical Protestant voters support Trump at this stage in the 2020 campaign. This is largely consistent with other recent polls that show Trump’s slipping support among white evangelical Protestants.
It seems clear that Trump’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has hurt him politically. The AEI survey finds that the public has become increasingly critical of Trump’s response to the pandemic, even among his most loyal supporters.
In a late March survey, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of white evangelicals said Trump was handling the coronavirus very well, the new survey, conducted in late May to early June, reveals that only 44 percent of white evangelicals now judge his response very positively. It’s true that a majority of white evangelical Protestants still approve of Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, but fewer are enthusiastic about his performance.
Another reason for Trump’s softening support among white evangelicals is that he continues to struggle with women voters and this weakness is showing up consistently across the electorate. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll shows Biden expanding on his lead with women voters, which now stands at 19-points advantage. The AEI survey reveals a sizable gender gap in the vote preferences of white evangelical Protestants as well. Among registered voters more than three-quarters (76 percent) of white evangelical men say they are supporting Trump compared to 63 percent of white evangelical women.
There is another possible explanation that is not about Trump at all. Evidence suggests that Joe Biden does not scare conservatives the way other Democratic candidates do. And it’s not simply his politics. Adam Serwer argues in The Atlantic that Biden presents a unique challenge to Trump because he does not arouse the ire of conservative white Christians in the same way that Clinton and Obama did.
“Biden’s electability pitch was not just about being moderate relative to the rest of the primary field, but also about being a straight, Christian, white man, one whom Republicans would find difficult to paint as a dire threat to America as conservative white voters understand it,” Serwer wrote.
A recent Fox News poll finds that more than one-in-three (36 percent) white evangelical Protestants report having a favorable view of Joe Biden. In contrast, only 12 percent of white evangelical Protestants expressed a positive view of Clinton in 2016.
Presidential elections have traditionally been understood to be referendums on the incumbent’s performance; however, in this case, the fact that white evangelical Protestants dislike Joe Biden far less than Hillary Clinton could prove to be significant.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has effectively portrayed a diversifying Democratic Party as an existential threat to conservative Christian culture. And in Trump white evangelical Protestants have seen an advocate and ally for their cause. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that most white evangelical Protestants believe that the Trump administration is actively representing their interests.
Perhaps more importantly white evangelical Protestants, who have suffered a series of setbacks in the broader culture war, believe that their side finally has the advantage. White evangelical Protestants believe much of American culture is overtly hostile to their values. They see religion in decline and widespread discrimination against Christians. But under Trump a majority of white evangelicals now believe that “their side” is winning, a dramatic shift over the last couple years.
No one should expect white evangelicals to wholesale abandon Trump. White evangelical Protestants are a dedicated Republican constituency and have remained fiercely loyal to Trump. In fact, over the last 10 years they have become much more Republican in their partisan attachments. But clearly enthusiasm for Trump has ebbed.
If many wavering white evangelical voters end up supporting Trump in the end, his overall level of support in 2020 may not look that different from 2016, but if Trump’s most loyal supporters are not completely committed to his reelection, he is almost certainly in a perilous position.