Evangelical Christians were the backbone of President Trump’s 2016 victory, and he is doing even better among them as he prepares for 2020, according to polling that shows strong support and religious-right leaders who say they are working to translate that into votes.
Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, said plans are in the works to register 1 million evangelical voters, knock on 3 million doors and put literature in more than 117,000 churches in key states, with the hopes of contacting roughly 30 million people.
“It’s going to be the most ambitious and far-reaching voter mobilization effort in the history of the conservative faith community, and it’s going to be roughly three times the level of what we did in 2016,” he said.
Mr. Trump won 81% of self-identified evangelicals’ votes in the 2016 election, according to exit polling. A Public Opinion Strategies poll commissioned by Mr. Reed’s group says the president now has a stunning 83% approval rate among that bloc.
That creates a massive pool of people with goodwill toward Mr. Trump — if they can be persuaded to show up on Election Day.
“Obviously, it’s a key support group for him. It is not enough for him to win the election, but it certainly provides a very solid foundation,” said Glen Bolger, co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, backed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the 2016 Republican primary but has been amazed to see a twice-divorced casino mogul and real estate salesman become such an effective messenger for Christian values.
“It’s fascinating to watch,” said Mr. Perkins, who delivered a rousing endorsement of Mr. Trump at the Republican National Convention. “I was in the debate in Las Vegas, sitting in the audience, and I knew when he took on Hillary Clinton on late-term abortion … I remember sitting there thinking, ‘He just sealed the deal with pro-lifers.’”
Mr. Perkins said his group is still working through its election strategy but is convinced that the network of churches will respond next year.
“All of our internal numbers [and] our polling shows that his support has not in any way wavered,” he said.
That’s not to say the president isn’t a divisive figure in the community.
After Mr. Trump made an unscheduled stop to pray at McLean Bible Church in suburban Virginia on a recent weekend afternoon, the pastor of the high-profile evangelical congregation said he had heard from parishioners who felt “hurt” by his decision to welcome the president.
Despite his personal history, Mr. Trump has managed to endear himself to religious conservatives overall with his judicial appointments, his administration’s promotion of pro-life and religious liberty policies and his staunch support of the state of Israel.
“This constituency delivered in a big way in 2016 and frankly in 2018, but I think we’re really going to have a strong wind at our back in 2020 because there is such a deep reservoir of gratitude, appreciation and affection for this president because of the number of commitments and promises he made that he has kept,” Mr. Reed said.
He said when “faithful, frequently Mass-attending Roman Catholics” are added in, conservative religious voters will likely total close to 40% of the electorate next year — larger than the Hispanic, black and union votes combined.
Despite Mr. Trump’s overwhelming support from social conservatives in 2016, there is still room for growth with voters who in 2016 either stayed home or cast protest votes, he said.
“They not only are fully supportive of President Trump; they believe that he’s been as strong or better on the core issues that they care about than anybody they’ve ever supported,” Mr. Reed predicted.
He acknowledged that the choice this time will be different from 2016, when a well-known and unpopular Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, helped push some wavering voters to Mr. Trump. But he said the president’s “stellar and outstanding record” means more enthusiasm.
He also predicted that the increasingly leftward drift of Democrats’ agenda means their presidential nominee “will be so extreme and so out of the mainstream” that religious voters will show up.
E.W. Jackson, a bishop and past candidate for office from Chesapeake, Virginia, warned that he has been sensing some feelings of complacency.
“The complacency is based on the idea that you can’t possibly foresee him losing because of the field of candidates that are being put forward, and the idea that the American people aren’t interested in going to the far left or taking this country to the far left,” Mr. Jackson said.
He said he is warning people not to underestimate a well-organized Democratic operation, and he is laying plans for a bus tour to key battleground states and outreach not only to churches, but also to tea party, libertarian and low-tax groups.
“We’re starting very, very early,” he said. “I get into this stuff normally in late winter/early spring of an election year. We’re not waiting this time. We are full blown into it now.”
Religious voters have been a prized bloc for years. President George W. Bush tapped into them in 2004 en route to reelection. That win sent Democrats scrambling to figure out what went wrong and promising to do more to attract the religious-minded.
Those efforts seemed to pay off in 2006 and 2008 but have faded as the Democratic coalition has looked elsewhere for votes in recent years.
Still, some more liberal-minded religious groups are amazed that Mr. Trump retains such strong support from “values voters.”
“It’s a bit perplexing,” said Doug Pagitt, executive director of Vote Common Good, a new group that is working to reshape the traditional political fault lines among faith-minded voters.
He said there’s a contingent who sees Mr. Trump as “God’s chosen person” for the presidency “for reasons they trust but can’t understand.” But Mr. Pagitt says that may not last.
“They’re not happy with him, but it’s kind of like you have a lease on a car and you’ve got a four-year lease, and there’s no point in complaining about it yet because you’re stuck with it,” he said. “We are hoping that a lot of these people, when the time comes to pick fresh and new are going to say, ‘Hey, maybe I don’t have to stay with the brand that I was with before.’”
Mr. Jackson dismissed those chances. He said Mr. Trump has sent important signals with the people around him and pointed to the continued influence of conservative religious leaders such as Paula White, Robert Jeffress and Darrell Scott.
“It gives us some confidence in him that at least these kinds of folks have his ear,” he said. “We know that we have access to this president, that we can talk to him. We didn’t feel that way about Barack Obama because he wasn’t interested. He was interested in talking to Al Sharpton, not talking to Jerry Falwell Jr.”
Though Mr. Trump doesn’t yet have an official Democratic opponent, Mr. Jackson said he is confident about a stark contrast for religious voters.
“Yeah, I know he’s not perfect, but here again: It’s not Donald Trump or Jesus,” he said. “It’s really Donald Trump or the devil in a way, if you know what I mean.”