The dominant media narrative is that Donald Trump continues to win the evangelical vote, and this storyline persists despite strong evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the intense media focus on evangelical leaders who support Trump, such as Jerry Falwell Jr., helps sustain this misleading account in spite of the fact that more mainstream evangelical leaders, such as Russell Moore and Max Lucado, have denounced Donald Trump. Regardless of the stance of evangelical leaders, what are “rank and file” evangelicals actually doing once they enter the voting booth?
In the March 1 “Super Tuesday” races, Trump failed to win a majority of evangelicals in any southern state and lost more than half of evangelicals, on average, overall. A look at the second Super Tuesday from March 15 reveals similar results with a couple of surprises. The bottom line is that a majority of evangelicals are still backing candidates other than Trump. In Missouri, the most religiously active voters are supporting non-Trump alternatives with numbers as high as 70 percent.
March 15 did see Trump carry an impressive 49 percent plurality of evangelicals in Florida, but that was the only state where he was able to perform that feat. Even those results seem tempered when, by comparison, Trump carried 50 percent of the Catholic vote there as well.
Still, even in Florida, Trump only garnered 19 percent of votes from those who chose their candidate based on “shared values.” This includes both Catholics and evangelicals. This hardly supports a conclusion that “values voters” are in Trump’s back pocket. In contrast, Cruz carried pluralities of evangelicals in Missouri (46 percent), North Carolina (43 percent), and Illinois (37 percent) while Kasich carried a plurality of evangelicals in Ohio (43 percent). It seems misleading to continually push a narrative that evangelicals are en masse supporting Trump when his win-loss record (in terms of pluralities) was a paltry 1-5. A win-loss record like that wouldn’t even earn him a spot on the Miami Marlins starting pitching rotation.
The alternative evangelical narrative
One plausible alternative narrative coming out of the March 15 primaries is that evangelicals actually slowed Trump’s advance in Missouri and Illinois and helped defeat him in Ohio. This conclusion is based on the fact that Trump performed worse among evangelicals than non-evangelicals in all three of those states. In addition, Kasich and Cruz each beat Trump among evangelicals by the same margin of eight points in both Ohio and Missouri, respectively.
Across all the states, the March 15 elections showed that, on average, a super-majority of 60 percent of evangelicals voted for someone other than Trump. Furthermore, there continues to be strong evidence that the more religious a voter is, the less likely they are to support Donald Trump. For example, in Missouri exit polls, which tracked church attendance, Trump performed much worse than Ted Cruz. Of those who attend religious services “more than once a week,” Cruz garnered 56 percent of the vote, outpacing Trump by a full 26 percentage points. Among those who attend religious services once a week, Cruz earned 50 percent of the vote, which was a full 17 points above Trump.
In contrast, with those who only attend services “a few” times a year, Trump won 48 percent of the vote to Cruz’s 29 percent. If Missouri’s numbers are indicative of voters in other states, then Trump does much worse among those who actually take their faith seriously enough to attend religious services consistently. There is some recent research by The Barna Group reported on by Vox, which suggests these numbers are indeed consistent with a broader pattern among evangelical voters nationally.
Furthermore, Trump continues to lose by huge numbers among “values voters.” For example, among those who chose “shared values” as their top candidate quality, Trump only garnered, on average, 13 percent of votes across the five states. Put another way, on average, a startling 87 percent of “values voters” do not support Trump at the ballot box. By contrast, Ted Cruz earned, on average, 42 percent of the values voters across the five states while Rubio earned 38 percent in Florida, and Kasich earned an average of 32 percent in the remaining four states (other than Florida). Thus, to those whom “shared values” mattered most, Trump’s candidacy mattered least.
Jacksonian first, evangelical second
Despite the fact that a majority of evangelicals do not support Trump, it’s still fair to ask why even a steady minority of evangelicals are voting for him given the disjuncture between Trump’s personal and public morality versus the common evangelical focus on the importance of personal morality and integrity. One strong possibility here is that this may be a classic case of correlation rather than causation. That is to say, evangelical Trump voters may “happen” to be evangelical but they are not necessarily voting for Trump “because” they are evangelical. Rather, a third factor might be driving the phenomenon instead. More specifically, there is evidence to suggest that Trumpism is not an evangelical phenomenon at all, but rather a Jacksonian one. Walter Russell Meade first offered this explanation along with Steve Inskeep and others.
Jacksonians are largely highly nationalistic blue collar voters who despise Wall Street bankers and Washington elites. There is a long historical precedent for Jacksonian voters periodically rising up in anger and disrupting the political equilibrium, as was seen with Andrew Jackson himself, William Jennings Bryan, and to a lesser extent, Ross Perot. Most of the exit poll data suggests that evangelicals, per se, are not driving Trump’s success; Jacksonians are.
What confuses the media is that Jacksonians also happen to live in blue collar southern and midwestern communities where nominal evangelicals are more likely to also reside. It is highly likely that many evangelical Trump voters are Jacksonians first and foremost and only adopt the evangelical label as an afterthought. Their evangelical label is likely then a vague cultural affiliation rather than an indicator of deeply held religious beliefs and behaviors.
Evangelicalism as a religious and cultural phenomenon is difficult to define and measure accurately, so the media should show a bit more caution before lumping all evangelicals together in a massive pro-Trump herd, especially when a super-majority of that supposed herd do not actively support Donald J. Trump.
Darren Patrick Guerra is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Biola University specializing in Constitutional Law and American Politics. His writings have appeared in First Things and The Federalist. His book Perfecting the Constitution was published in 2013 by Lexington Books.