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The Influence of Evangelicals on the 2016 Presidential Election

Through his travels and reading, Chris gathers information and writes about historical events and concepts that are often overlooked.

The Call: An Evangelical gathering in Washington DC, 2008.

The Call: An Evangelical gathering in Washington DC, 2008.

Evangelical Christians: The Powerhouse of the Republican Party

Evangelical Christians were ostensibly the voting block that decided the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. They were the powerhouse in the George W. Bush victory in 2004 and in congressional victories that followed. Without their support, Donald Trump would not have defeated Hillary Clinton.

According to a Pew Research exit poll, white Evangelicals voted 81% for Trump versus 16% for Clinton. They did, in fact, support Trump in even greater numbers than they did Bush, McCain, and Romney in the previous three presidential elections.

  • Bush in 2004: 78% of Evangelicals
  • McCain in 2008: 74% of Evangelicals
  • Romney in 2012: 78% of Evangelicals

Evangelicals Gather Prior to the 2008 Presidential Election

Without the Evangelical Vote, It Would Have Been Hillary Clinton by a Landslide

The thing to notice about the previously stated figures is the difference between the highest Evangelical percentage for a candidate in the recent past (78%) and their percentage for Trump in 2016 (81%). This 3% increase in Evangelical support is greater than any of Trump's victories in the swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Without the Evangelical vote, Hillary Clinton would have been elected president by an electoral landslide.

  • Wisconsin: 10 electoral votes
  • Michigan: 16 electoral votes
  • Florida: 29 electoral votes
  • Pennsylvania: 20 electoral votes
  • Total: 75 electoral votes

If Evangelicals had shown up in the same numbers as they did for Romney, McCain, and Bush, Hillary Clinton would have won 307 electoral votes compared to 231 for Trump.

Evangelicals Abandoned Their Social Agenda to Vote for Trump

Why did Evangelicals vote for Donald Trump in the primaries as well as the general election? In the past, the Evangelical platform included the following issues:

  • Pro-life, with a focus on overturning Roe vs. Wade.
  • Against same sex marriage.
  • Religious liberty.

But Donald Trump rarely talked of these matters during the campaign. In fact, during the primaries, he was clearly the most liberal Republican candidate on the LGBT issue. He had to be pressed hard on the topic of abortion.

Again, why did Evangelicals vote for Trump when he did not aggressively represent them on the issues that have been so important to them in the recent past? I believe there are two reasons for the monumental Evangelical influence on this election.

Two Reasons Evangelicals Came Out in Record Numbers for Trump

Economic Concerns

The first reason Evangelicals supported Trump is that since the economic downturn in 2008, Evangelicals, like everyone else, have been focused on the economy. Even for this voting block, which historically has been consumed with a handful of social issues, the bottom line is the bottom line. They voted for the man they felt could deliver on economic issues. Evangelical interest in the economy in the 2016 election might be seen as the next step in their takeover of the Republican party. They already set the social agenda, and now they have weighed in on the fiscal side.

Activation of Evangelical Voters

There is a second reason Evangelicals turned out in record numbers in support of Donald Trump. Two non-profit organizations delivered the Evangelical vote on November 8, 2016. One was the Faith and Freedom Foundation, headed by Ralph Reed. The other was the Decision America Tour/Lift the Vote, led by Franklin Graham.

Following the election, Ralph Reed said that "[in] the Faith & Freedom Coalition phone bank operation, a universe of 15.6 million conservative Christians living in 9.5 million households were identified in 11 key battleground states. The phone banks were tied to the outreach field operation that sent 26 million cell phone ads to 3.8 million targeted voters. We were knocking on doors. We knocked on 1,253,778 doors in the top 11 states. We were distributing voter guides. We were dropping mail–all these things."

Lift the Vote engaged in the fifty state Decision America Tour, led by Franklin Graham, to motivate Evangelicals to vote in the general election. Breitbart News quoted a spokesperson for Lift the Vote as saying that "Lift the Vote had three buses on the road in key battleground states between September 16 and November 8, Election Day, which made stops in eight battleground states: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia. The group “distributed stickers proclaiming ‘I’m a Christian. I’m Voting!’ to over 400,000 people as a crucial part of the ‘high touch/boots-on-the-ground’ voter turnout initiative...”

It is important to note that Lift the Vote did not press people to vote for a political candidate, but to vote according to Christian values. Evidently, most felt Donald Trump represented those values better than Hillary Clinton.

This aspect of the 2016 presidential election has implications for the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Evangelical Christians, and the nation in general.

Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition on CNN, October 19, 2015

Implications for the Democratic Party

The Democratic Party can no longer afford to ignore or belittle Evangelical voters. They must build a bridge to a significant number of these people and win them over. This will be a difficult task since most Evangelicals see democrats as opposing biblical values. But progress could be made if democrats get creative on how they market their pro-choice beliefs. They could emphasize their support for contraception being made available to everyone, regardless of age and without parental consent. The focus would be on preventing pregnancy and negating the need for an abortion. There is common ground here between many Evangelicals and democrats.

Implications for the Republican Party

In the 1980s and before, Evangelicals were an arm of the Republican Party. Now they are its head. Is this how a political party operates? Do they allow a particular segment of their number to have such overwhelming influence? It is difficult to see them doing otherwise at this point in history. The tail is wagging the dog and the mutt seems fairly content.

Implications for Evangelicals

The big issue before Evangelical Christians is whether the political arena is the most appropriate place for them to carry out their mission in the world. But before they can even deal with that issue, they need to rediscover what that mission is. They are, according to their own scriptures, to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Is that mission most effectively carried out by being the key influence in choosing the leaders of a nation?

Implications for the Nation in General

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the US was being governed by leaders chosen by a relatively small number of people. The only way Evangelicals were able to sway this election was when 41% of eligible voters chose to stay home on election day as they did on November 8, 2016.

The Big Story About the 2016 Presidential Election

Donald Trump became President of the United States of America. That is a fact that cannot be undone. His victory was a result of an election governed by the Constitution. The big story about the presidential election of 2016 was not that Evangelicals swayed the election (after all, they have a right to vote). The headline was that 82 million out of 200 million registered voters thought so little about the path down which this country was headed that they didn't even attempt to vote.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.