- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 5, 2020

White evangelicals labored in the vineyards again for President Trump on Tuesday, casting votes in overwhelming numbers for the Republican president who counts them among his staunchest allies and for pro-life, socially conservative Republican candidates in down-ballot races as well.

But early data from exit polls and turnout reveals a small but potentially fatal slippage from Mr. Trump’s 2016 massive support from Christian evangelicals in key states, even as Democratic rival Joseph R. Biden appeared to be moving closer to a win in both the popular vote and the Electoral College.

Surveys of voters by The Associated Press and National Election Poll found that Mr. Trump thumped his Democratic rival with 76% to 78% of white, born-again Christians casting ballots for the president this year.

But this strong lean would mark a slight decline from the totals in 2016, when an estimated 81% of these voters threw support to Mr. Trump and proved critical to his upset win.

Mr. Trump’s deeply loyal evangelical base has always proved something of a conundrum — a brash, thrice-married New York City billionaire developer and reality TV star tied to a largely non-urban, non-coastal voting bloc that puts a strong premium on personal character. But Mr. Trump delivered again and again for evangelical Christians with his strong pro-life stance, Supreme Court nominees, focus on religious freedom and strong backing for Israel.

With small margins in a few swing states likely to decide the election, some of Mr. Trump’s opponents say the small erosion in evangelical support after 2016 could have played a critical role in the result.

“The counties that moved most in Michigan are counties that are predominantly evangelical,” said Doug Pagitt, executive director of Vote Common Good, a Christian group opposed to Mr. Trump’s reelection.

Mr. Pagitt, a pastor in Minneapolis, told The Washington Times on Thursday that his organization campaigned heavily in and around Grand Rapids, a region he described as “the Silicon Valley of the evangelical sub-culture,” given the prevalence of Christian colleges and publishers.

His group paid for billboards in Kent County highlighting biblical phrases such as “Turn the other cheek” with a silhouette of Jesus, against phrases from Mr. Trump such as “I’d like to punch him in the face,” which candidate Trump said about a protester at a 2016 Las Vegas rally.

Mr. Trump won Michigan’s Kent County with over 48% of the vote in 2016, but his support dropped to 46% this year, according to results on the county’s website. Mr. Biden appears to have gained over 52% of ballots cast, so far.

Mr. Pagitt doesn’t attribute every shift in votes to religious beliefs or reactions to Mr. Trump’s behavior while in office, but he noted that the region voted to send Republican Peter Meijer to Congress to replace the seat vacated by conservative Rep. Justin Amash.

“These people voted for [Mr. Meijer] as a Republican but didn’t vote for Donald Trump,” Mr. Pagitt said.

Sinking the blue wave

Data from exit polling, especially on evangelicals, is far from conclusive. An exit poll by the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a social conservative group, found “self-identified evangelicals” voted at 81% — the same as 2016 — for Mr. Trump.

They note that, aside from the White House race, Republicans did far better than the polls had forecast by holding off a “blue wave” and securing millions of more votes for the Trump-Pence ticket than four years ago.

“Our ground game worked. Republicans cannot win without these voters, and Democrats continue to suffer for failing to appeal in a substantive way to these voters of faith,” Tim Head, executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, said in a statement.

In Florida, where Mr. Trump shocked pundits by handily defeating Mr. Biden despite polls showing him consistently trailing, leaders in the Hispanic evangelical Christian community said their turnout for the president could make the bloc one of the country’s new sought-after swing demographics — and one Republicans can target in other states.

The Hispanic vote for Mr. Trump jumped nationally by 3 percentage points and even more in Florida and Texas, according to some exit polls.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said in an interview Thursday that he hopes to replicate Mr. Trump’s strong performance in deep-blue California, with the aim of flipping Democratic-held congressional seats in 2022.

“For the first time in American history,” said Mr. Rodriguez, “White and Latino evangelicals are now marching in lockstop as it pertains to an agenda that is 100% pro-life, [supportive of] religious liberty and now with an additional item … fighting socialism as a Christian, biblically-sustained agenda.”

Christian conservatives also point to a swing in the House of Representatives, where at least 13 pro-life women won seats. They included Republicans Ashley Hinson in northeastern Iowa and Michelle Fischbach in western Minnesota, who unseated conservative 15-term Democrat Collin Peterson, a reliably pro-life vote.

“The surge of victorious pro-life women candidates in the U.S. House is a stunning blow to Nancy Pelosi and her pro-abortion agenda,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, said Tuesday evening.

But the presidential election, along with counting still underway Thursday in tight races in several battleground states, could end up being a sore spot for conservative evangelicals who fought to give their president another four years.

Since exit polling started tracking the evangelical vote in 2004, never has the group supported a single candidate like they have Mr. Trump. But coming into 2020, a full three years into his presidency, Mr. Trump’s support within white evangelicals began to show small fissures, if not cracks.

During the impeachment battle in December, Mark Galli, the outgoing editor of Christianity Today, wrote in an editorial that the president should be removed from office. He cited what he called the president’s “grossly immoral character.”

The editorial sparked a sharp and at times divisive debate within the evangelical community.

During the pandemic, while Mr. Trump showed support for churches filing lawsuits against Democratic governors to lift what critics saw as draconian social distancing limits on worship, polling numbers from Pew Research Center suggested that the president also faced backlash from many Christians — particularly Roman Catholics — for his response in the face of the novel coronavirus.

In internal polling, Mr. Pagitt said Christian detractors of the president continually brought up one word: “kindness.”

“If a voter said they saw a voter as unkind on a Christian virtue level, there was an 80% chance they weren’t going to vote for him,” said Mr. Pagitt. “It’s never been about policy. It’s always been about the person.”

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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