Progressives—perhaps unaware that white evangelical Christians helped them elect President Obama—can improve their chances of recapturing the White House in 2020 by pushing past their distaste for those voters and wooing them back.
Evangelicals, who are mostly white, make up 25% of the U.S. electorate and so play an important role in pitching elections one way or another. Because a significant majority of white evangelical Christians cast ballots for Donald Trump, this group ranks high on the list of voters blamed by progressives for what they increasingly see as the abomination of Trump’s presidency.
White evangelicals (along with other white Trump supporters) have become, for progressives, the target of epithets such as “racist,” “misogynist,” “without compassion,” “nonsense-believing,” or “democracy-hating.” See, for example, Katha Pollitt’s “Lack of Empathy Is Not the Problem” in The Nation, or Jamelle Bouie’s “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter” in Slate. Still more colorful, but unprintable language is used in private conversations. The descriptor “evil” has become commonplace.
These epithets are reactions to Trump’s demand for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, on which millions rely for their health care; his qualified criticism of the racially motivated violence in Charlottesville; his decision to end the ability of Dreamers to stay in the U.S. legally; and more. Given these policies, Trump’s detractors seem unable to comprehend why his supporters—white evangelicals included—continue to support him in such great numbers.
Nonetheless, Trump supporters do support him. They do not appear to “be sorry” about their choice of candidate. As recently as September 6th, CBS News reported that a Gallup poll and an Economist/YouGov survey showed Trump’s approval ratings holding steady at around 40%.
Important, however: though white evangelical Protestants tend to vote Republican, they can be persuaded, when their interests are at stake, to vote for a Democrat. During Obama’s first campaign for president, he won a “huge majority” among voters with low or moderate annual incomes—meaning 60% of those making less than $50,000 a year. The economic struggles and financial instability of the electorate consistently cut in his favor.
Most evangelicals, income-wise, fall in the range in which Obama made significant inroads. According to a 2014 Pew Research survey, 86% of evangelical Protestants (not broken out by race or gender) had a family income of less than $100,000. Here’s the data:
On election night 2008, 24% of white evangelical Protestants voted for Obama. Four years later, 21% voted for him. In contrast, 16% voted for Clinton. See the table below, created using Pew Research Center results:
Due to margin of error, the difference between Romney’s 79% and Trump’s 81% may not be meaningful. More difficult to dismiss is the difference between Obama’s 21% in 2012 and Clinton’s 16% only four years later. Of note also is a Pew Research study showing that 18% of white working-class voters with a favorable view of the Democratic Party in December 2015—the start of the 2016 presidential campaign—leaned Republican by December 2016.
As I have written in a previous Sightings article, the economy dominated the 2016 priority list of white evangelicals—more than six in ten (63%) cited this issue as the most important one facing the country. However, Clinton opted for a different campaign strategy than Obama’s and ignored white voters with low or moderate incomes. Indeed, she resisted husband Bill’s plea to travel to rural areas and reach out personally to this demographic. Though she had long worked to improve the lives of those voters, she failed to convince them that she was interested in them or in their plight. They are still smarting from being called Deplorables.
Business consultant Alan Sewell captured the economy-driven reasons behind the shift from Obama to Trump when he wrote: “In the main, we the people of PA, OH, MI, WI, IA, and FL are not ideology-bound political partisans. We voted our states for Obama in 2012 because we thought he was a fair-minded President who was moving the economy forward. We voted for Trump in 2016 because we thought he was more competent on economic issues of restricting excessive immigration and reining in ‘free’ trade than Ms. Clinton.”
Obama serves as a model for how progressives can move forward productively. After all, who would have been more justified than Obama to refuse to engage in conversation with members of the white working and middle classes in suburban and rural parts of the country? Instead, he made a conscious decision to speak to all citizens, even if they hated him for the color of his skin.
In his first news conference after the 2016 election, Obama said he was determined “to show up everywhere.” He convinced a majority (57%) of voters with low or moderate annual incomes that he was “in touch with people like them.” Refusing to let Iowa’s majority-white demographics dictate his campaign schedule, he “spent 87 days going to every small town, and fair, and fish fry, and VFW hall.” He won the state twice. In contrast, Clinton lost Iowa by 10 points.
If progressives hope to recapture the White House, they will have to persuade most, or all, of the white evangelical Christians who switched from Obama to Trump to switch back to their next candidate.
This could be a tough sell. As sociologist Michèle Lamont wrote in her book, The Dignity of Working Men, “morality is central to the meaning [working-class men] attach to success,” but it is “not much more valued than socioeconomic success.” And, at the moment, the economy is humming. Based on government data, Forbes recently reported that personal incomes are increasing. Government data also showed that the economy added 209,000 jobs in July, surpassing expectations. Never mind that these upticks are most likely due to policies set in motion by Obama. Nobody cares—the Trump administration gets the credit.
Justified as their righteous rage may be, progressives must look past the racism and cruelty that they ascribe to white Trump supporters, and focus on the financial struggles of working and middle-class families—children included. Otherwise, they may be setting themselves up for another four years of Trump.
Progressives will have to persuade the white evangelicals who voted for Trump that they care deeply about their plight. They will have to do so through legislation but also through a clear and sustained drumbeat. Unless the economy plummets, of course, and the Democratic presidential candidate can convincingly make the case that he or she has better fixes. To wish for a repeat of the Great Recession, however, would qualify as its own brand of cruelty.
Trump may not bring back as many jobs as his supporters hope, but they believe he is trying and are grateful for his efforts. In the years leading up to Election Day 2020, progressives will undermine his advantage if they follow Obama’s strategy to convince some of those voters—including white evangelicals—that they too are trying, but trying harder, and that they are more likely to succeed.
- “America’s Changing Religious Landscape, Chapter 3: Demographic Profiles of Religious Groups.” Pew Research Center. May 12, 2015.
- Ball, Molly. “Why Hillary Clinton Lost.” The Atlantic. November 15, 2016.
- Bouie, Jamelle. “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter.” Slate. November 15, 2016.
- CBS News. “Polls: Trump’s approval rating holding steady near 40 percent.” Face the Nation. September 6, 2017.
- Chozick, Amy. “Hillary Clinton’s Expectations, and Her Ultimate Campaign Missteps.” The New York Times. November 9, 2016.
- Cohn, Nate. “The Obama-Trump Voters Are Real. Here’s What They Think.” The New York Times. August 15, 2017.
- Danner, Chas. “Polls: Trump’s Historically Bad Approval Ratings Persist, But His Voters Have No Regrets.” New York Magazine. April 23, 2017.
- “Inside Obama’s Sweeping Victory.” Pew Research Center. November 5, 2008.
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- Lamont, Michèle. The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration. Harvard University Press, 2002.
- Oyedele, Akin. “Jobs report beats expectations, unemployment rate returns to 16-year low.” Business Insider. August 4, 2016.
- Pollitt, Katha. “Lack of Empathy Is Not the Problem.” The Nation. June 9, 2017.
- “Religious Landscape Study: Evangelical Protestants.” Pew Research Center. May 30, 2014.
- Renaud, Myriam. “Myths Debunked: Why Did White Evangelical Christians Vote for Trump?” Sightings: Religion in Public Life. January 19, 2017.
- Rosenfeld, Everett. “Obama: Where the Democrats Went Wrong.” CNBC. November 14, 2016.
- Sewell, Alan F. “The retreat of the global economy: A spectrum broad and deep.” Customer review of Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Amazon. June 17, 2017.
- Smith, Gregory A., and Jessica Martínez. “How the faithful voted: a preliminary 2016 analysis.” Pew Research Center. November 9, 2016.
- Soergel, Andrew. “Personal Income Booms as Consumer Spending Slows.” U.S. News & World Report. June 30, 2017
- Swanson, Ana. “U.S. job growth surges in July.” The Washington Post. August 4, 2016.
- Taylor, Jessica. “Obama: Democratic Party Needs To Reflect, ‘Show Up Everywhere’.” National Public Radio. November 14, 2016.
- Taylor-Coleman, Jasmine. “Why Republicans’ support for Donald Trump is sky-high.” BBC News. March 14, 2017.
- “U.S. Economy Added 209,000 Jobs in July – Live Analysis.” The Wall Street Journal. Last updated August 4, 2017.
- “U.S. religious groups and their political leanings.” Pew Research Center. February 23, 2016.
|Author, Myriam Renaud, is a PhD candidate in religious thought at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is also Principal Investigator and Project Director of the Global Ethic Project at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Her cross-disciplinary dissertation focuses on the idea of God in the philosophical theology of Gordon Kaufman and on the “Declaration Towards a Global Ethic,” a document introduced at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions. She co-edited and contributed to God and the Moral Life (Routledge, 2018), and her academic writing has also appeared in journals such as Zygon and the Anglican Theological Review. A former Managing Editor of Sightings, she writes about religion in public life for popular media outlets like The Atlantic, Religion Dispatches, and Sightings. Renaud was a finalist for the 2017 Religion News Association’s Chandler Award for Student Reporting on Religion.|
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