Trump was counting on widening support from white religious voters this fall. The pandemic is sending his numbers the other way.
A sudden shift in support for Donald Trump among religious conservatives is triggering alarm bells inside his reelection campaign, where top aides have long banked on expanding the president’s evangelical base as a key part of their strategy for victory this November.
The anxiety over Trump’s standing with the Christian right surfaced after a pair of surveys by reputable outfits earlier this month found waning confidence in the administration’s coronavirus response among key religious groups, with a staggering decline in the president’s favorability among white evangelicals and white Catholics. Both are crucial constituencies that supported Trump by wide margins in 2016 and could sink his reelection prospects if their turnout shrinks this fall.
The polls paint a bleak picture for Trump, who has counted on broadening his religious support by at least a few percentage points to compensate for weakened appeal with women and suburban populations. One GOP official said the dip in the president’s evangelical support also appeared in internal party polling, but disputed the notion that it had caused panic. Another person close to the campaign described an April survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, which showed a double-digit decline in Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals (-11), white Catholics (-12) and white mainline protestants (-18) from the previous month, as “pretty concerning.”
To safeguard his relationship with religious conservatives, Trump on Friday demanded that America‘s governors permit houses of worship to immediately reopen, and threatened to “override“ state leaders who decline to obey his directive. The announcement — which came days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention omitted religious institutions in new guidance about industry reopenings — featured clear appeals to white evangelicals, many of whom have long supported Trump’s socially conservative agenda.
Trump campaign aides, White House officials and outside allies are responding to the threat by boosting their outreach to religious voters and promising to prioritize religious gatherings as they push to reopen the U.S. economy. Administration officials have conducted multiple calls with conservative Christian groups to ensure their support over the past two months. Trump himself recently attended an online worship service hosted by St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. And Vice President Mike Pence held a roundtable with faith leaders in Iowa earlier this month. Reed said his organization is planning a get-out-the-vote campaign three times as large as its effort in 2016.
It’s unlikely that critics of church closings alone are responsible for the decline in Trump’s favorability among critical religious demographics. According to the Pew survey, 43 percent of white evangelicals and 52 percent of white Catholics think the current restrictions on public activity in their areas are appropriate versus 42 percent and 31 percent, respectively, who think fewer restrictions would be better. Greater shares of white evangelicals and white Catholics also said they are more afraid about their state governments lifting restrictions on public activity too soon than they are about leaving the restrictions in place for too long.
As the coronavirus-related death toll approaches 100,000 and outbreaks emerge in locations where social distancing is more difficult, Laura Gifford, a historian of politics and religion at George Fox University, said it’s likely become harder for the president’s supporters to embrace his plans for an accelerated reopening of the country. The more Trump contradicts health officials who have warned against reopening schools and nonessential businesses, she suggested, the less accepting his usual supporters might become of his overall response.
“If grandma’s retirement home is suffering from an outbreak, there’s pretty good evidence that something is awry and it makes it difficult to ignore what public health experts are saying,” Gifford said. “This is something where that is harder to ignore than previous controversies or crises because it has life-and-death consequences for congregations and religious populations.”
Part of the strategy Trump allies have adopted to protect his relationship with conservative Christians is to frame the novel coronavirus — and church closures in response to social distancing restrictions — as a threat to religious freedom. The president’s religious supporters routinely cite religious liberty as one of their top priorities and an area in which they believe the Trump administration has been exceptionally receptive.
But the religious freedom framing might not matter if the economy remains in free fall through the November election, even after churches are permitted to reopen and conservative outside groups ramp up their outreach to religious voters.
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