The numbers tell a different story than the headlines.
The dominant media narrative is that Donald Trump continues to win the evangelical vote, and this storyline persists despite strong evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the intense media focus on evangelical leaders who support Trump, such as Jerry Falwell Jr., helps sustain this misleading account in spite of the fact that more mainstream evangelical leaders, such as Russell Moore and Max Lucado, have denounced Donald Trump. Regardless of the stance of evangelical leaders, what are “rank and file” evangelicals actually doing once they enter the voting booth?
In the March 1 “Super Tuesday” races, Trump failed to win a majority of evangelicals in any southern state and lost more than half of evangelicals, on average, overall. A look at the second Super Tuesday from March 15 reveals similar results with a couple of surprises. The bottom line is that a majority of evangelicals are still backing candidates other than Trump. In Missouri, the most religiously active voters are supporting non-Trump alternatives with numbers as high as 70 percent.
March 15 did see Trump carry an impressive 49 percent plurality of evangelicals in Florida, but that was the only state where he was able to perform that feat. Even those results seem tempered when, by comparison, Trump carried 50 percent of the Catholic vote there as well.
Across all the states, the March 15 elections showed that, on average, a super-majority of 60 percent of evangelicals voted for someone other than Trump. Furthermore, there continues to be strong evidence that the more religious a voter is, the less likely they are to support Donald Trump. For example, in Missouri exit polls, which tracked church attendance, Trump performed much worse than Ted Cruz. Of those who attend religious services “more than once a week,” Cruz garnered 56 percent of the vote, outpacing Trump by a full 26 percentage points. Among those who attend religious services once a week, Cruz earned 50 percent of the vote, which was a full 17 points above Trump.
Furthermore, Trump continues to lose by huge numbers among “values voters.” For example, among those who chose “shared values” as their top candidate quality, Trump only garnered, on average, 13 percent of votes across the five states. Put another way, on average, a startling 87 percent of “values voters” do not support Trump at the ballot box. By contrast, Ted Cruz earned, on average, 42 percent of the values voters across the five states while Rubio earned 38 percent in Florida, and Kasich earned an average of 32 percent in the remaining four states (other than Florida). Thus, to those whom “shared values” mattered most, Trump’s candidacy mattered least.
Jacksonian first, evangelical second
Jacksonians are largely highly nationalistic blue collar voters who despise Wall Street bankers and Washington elites. There is a long historical precedent for Jacksonian voters periodically rising up in anger and disrupting the political equilibrium, as was seen with Andrew Jackson himself, William Jennings Bryan, and to a lesser extent, Ross Perot. Most of the exit poll data suggests that evangelicals, per se, are not driving Trump’s success; Jacksonians are.
What confuses the media is that Jacksonians also happen to live in blue collar southern and midwestern communities where nominal evangelicals are more likely to also reside. It is highly likely that many evangelical Trump voters are Jacksonians first and foremost and only adopt the evangelical label as an afterthought. Their evangelical label is likely then a vague cultural affiliation rather than an indicator of deeply held religious beliefs and behaviors.
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