This is not a particularly new question, but a few friends and readers have asked me over the past few months about the data behind the “Evangelicals support Trump” assertions. All of the people who asked me about this are long term Evangelicals who attend church regularly and typically vote Republican, but did not vote for Trump. They seemed to doubt that Evangelical support for Trump was as high as was being reported, but of course weren’t sure if that was selection bias on their part.
The first data set of interest is the exit polling from right after Election Day. This showed that Evangelical support had gone up from 78% for Romney to 81% for Trump. The full preliminary analysis is here, but I thought it would be interesting to see how all of the tracked religions had changed over the years, so I turned the table in to a bar chart. This shows the percent of people who claimed affiliation with a particular religious group AND said the voted for the Republican candidate:Since some religions tend to show large disparities along racial lines (such as Catholicism), race is included. White evangelical Christian was added as its own affiliation after the 2000 election, when those voters were given credit for putting Bush in office. Mormonism has not been consistently tracked, which is why the 2008 data is missing.
Anyway, I thought it was interesting to see that while support for Trump did increase over Romney’s support, it wasn’t a huge change. On the other hand, Mormons saw a fairly substantial drop in support for Trump as opposed to Romney or Bush. Hispanic Catholics and “other faiths” saw the biggest jump in support for Trump over Romney. However, white Evangelicals remained the most likely to vote for Trump at a full 21 points higher than the next closest group, white Catholics.
So with those kind of numbers, why aren’t my friends hearing this in their churches? A few possible reasons:
We don’t actually know the true percentage of Evangelicals who voted for Trump Even with a number like 81% , we still have to remember that about half of all people don’t vote at all. I couldn’t find data about how likely Evangelicals were to vote, but if it is at the same rate as other groups then only 40% of those sitting in the pews on Sunday morning actually cast a vote for Trump.
Some who have raised this objection have also objected that we don’t know if those calling themselves “Evangelical” actually were sitting in the pews on Sunday morning, so Pew decided to look at this question specifically. At least as of April, Evangelicals stating that they attended church at least once a month were actually the most likely to support Trump and the job he is doing, at 75%. Interestingly, that survey also found that there are relatively few people (20%) who call themselves Evangelical but don’t attend church often.
The pulpit and the pews may have a difference of opinion While exit polls capture the Evangelical vote broadly, some groups decided to poll Evangelical pastors specifically. At least a month before the election, only 30% of Evangelical pastors said they were planning on voting for Trump and 44% were still undecided. While more of them may have ended up voting for him, that level of hesitancy suggests they are probably not publicly endorsing him on Sunday mornings. Indeed, that same poll found that only 3% of pastors had endorsed a candidate from the pulpit during this election.
People weren’t voting based on things you hear sermons about After the data emerged about the Evangelical voting, many pundits hypothesized that the Supreme Court nomination and abortion were the major drivers of Evangelical voting. However, when Evangelicals were actually asked what their primary issues were, they told a different story. When asked to pick their main issues, they named “improving the economy”and “national security”, with the Supreme Court nominee ranking 4th with 10% picking it and abortion ranking 7th, with 4%. Even when allowed to name multiple issues, the Supreme Court and abortion were ranked as less concerning than terrorism, the economy, immigration, foreign policy and gun policy.
Now the motivation may seem minor, but think about what people actually discuss in church on Sunday morning. Abortion or moral concerns are far more likely to come up in that context than terrorism. Basically, if Evangelicals are voting for Trump based on their beliefs about things that aren’t traditionally talked about on Sunday morning, you are not likely to hear about this on Sunday morning.
National breakdowns may not generalize to individual states I couldn’t find an overall breakdown of the white Evangelical vote by state, but it was widely reported that in some key states like Florida, Evangelical voters broke for Trump at even higher rates than the national average (85%), which obviously means some states went lower. What might skew the data even further however, is the uneven distribution of Evangelicals themselves. The Pew Research data tells us that about 26% of the voting public is white Evangelical, and Florida is very close to that at 23%. The states where my friends are from however (New Hampshire and Massachusetts) are much lower at 13% and 9% respectively. This means some small shifts in Evangelical voting in Florida could be the equivalent of huge shifts in New Hampshire.
As an example: According to the Election Project numbers, Florida had 9.5 million people cast votes and New Hampshire had 750,000. If Evangelicals were represented proportionally in the voting population, that means about 2.18 million Evangelicals cast a vote in Florida, and about 97,500 cast their vote in NH. That’s 22 times as many Evangelical voters in Florida as NH. Roughly speaking, this means a 1% change in Florida would be about 20,000 people….almost 20% of the NH Evangelical population. Massachusetts Evangelicals are similarly outnumbered at about 7 to 1 in comparison to Florida. If 0% of NH/MA Evangelical voters went for Trump but 85% of Florida Evangelicals did vote for him, that would still average out to 71% of Evangelicals voting for Trump across the three states. New England states just really don’t have the population to move the dial much, and even wildly divergent voting patterns wouldn’t move the national average.
Hopefully that sheds a bit of light on the numbers here, even if it is about 7 months too late to be a hot take.