Why Evangelicals Stick with Donald Trump & Roy Moore

Nobody should be surprised that evangelical voters are sticking with the GOP.

I’ve been watching evangelical voting behavior since I worked for Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation in the 1980s, and I’ve come to believe that, in most cases (though certainly not all), white evangelicals get their religion from their politics, not their politics from their religion.

That is, many evangelicals are first and foremost political conservatives drawn to a church (or a pastor) that confirms their worldviews and, in turn, their political views.

They gravitate to evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches that are spread across the American landscape, particularly in rural and small-town America, because those churches hold views about the Bible and human behavior that are traditional rather than pragmatic. Not surprisingly, most of those church members are politically conservative, particularly on social/cultural issues but increasingly also on the role of government.

There are, to be sure, socially and economically liberal evangelicals, and they gravitate to progressive churches or to groups like the Sojourners, a social justice evangelical group that looks at the exact same scripture as Jerry Fallwell Jr. and Pat Robertson but emphasizes very different values and takes very different political positions.

While the Falwells and Roberstons focus primarily on abortion, same-sex marriage and transgender rights, Jim Wallis of the Sojourners focuses on the poor and those marginalized by society. All are “evangelicals,” but they have very different concerns and agendas.

Of course, the tendency to affiliate with religious institutions that are consistent with one’s political views and priorities isn’t limited to evangelicals. Most people of faith pick a religion, a denomination, a particular house of worship, a clergyman and a level of observance that is consistent with their world view – and therefore with their core political beliefs.

You aren’t going to find very many political conservatives in Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues, just as you aren’t going to find many extremely liberal Hasidic Jews or pragmatists who attend fundamentalist churches.

The Catholic divide isn’t as easy to see, but it exists, with the religious travels of Paul Weyrich a good example of divisions in the Catholic Church.

Weyrich, a leading figure in what was called the New Right and the person who probably was most responsible for bringing evangelicals and conservative Catholics together after decades (really centuries) of distrust, grew up in Wisconsin as a Roman Catholic. But after Vatican II, he switched to attend St. Gregory of Nyssa Byzantine Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.

Many Eastern Rite Catholic churches were more traditional than their Roman Catholic brethren, retaining time-honored liturgical rites and ancestral languages. Those elements fit Weyrich’s traditional religious orientation and his overall conservative instincts.

Then, one day during a sermon, a priest referenced the Vietnam War in a context that was critical of U.S. involvement. Weyrich and his family walked out of St. Gregory’s, eventually joining a Melkite (Greek) Catholic church that was even more traditional than the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic church they had been attending.

Weyrich looked for a church in which he was comfortable, and that led him to more orthodox denominations, churches and clergy who followed traditions more closely and were not at the forefront of change.

Not everyone is as clear as Weyrich was in searching for a house of worship that reflected his values, principles, trappings and priorities. And certainly, some evangelicals, like former Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, have chosen to follow their moral imperatives rather than their partisan and ideological instincts.

But many religious denominations — or branches, in the case of Judaism — reflect a worldview that goes well beyond strictly religious views (such as, the divinity of Jesus or the observance of kashrut, for example).

They tend to be politically conservative or liberal, on social issues, foreign policy and even economic issues, depending on the denomination and the individual church or synagogue. (Again, there are plenty of exceptions, including my own synagogue, which tends to avoid matters of public policy except for Israel.)

For many white evangelicals, their religious and political views are so strongly intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate them. When their views of religion and morality collide with politics, politics often wins out. That’s why it’s naïve to ask why so many white evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump or Roy Moore.

Remember physician Scott DesJarlais (R-TN 4), the pro-life, tea party conservative first elected to Congress in 2010?

DesJarlais admitted pressuring his mistress to have an abortion and acknowledged he had multiple sexual relationships with patients and co-workers. His wife had two abortions. And yet, the Family Research Council, which promotes “traditional marriage and family and advocates for policies that uphold Judeo-Christian values” (according to the Almanac of American Politics, 2016), gave the congressman a 100% rating for 2014. Even more amazing, voters re-elected the Republican in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

The congressman’s hypocrisy is obvious, but no more so than the political behavior of his conservative, evangelical supporters.

If you have any doubt that white evangelicals are as much a political category as a religious one, you need only look at recent elections and exit polls.

In 2016, Donald Trump received the support of 80% of white evangelicals and born-again Christians, while Hillary Clinton drew just 16%. Clinton, on the other hand, won 60% of non-evangelicals. One year later, in the Virginia governor’s race. Republican Ed Gillespie carried 79% of white evangelicals, compared to Democrat Ralph Northam’s 19%. Northam carried a stunning 67% of Virginians who were not white evangelicals or born-agains.

Obviously, I have painted with a broad brush here. Religious institutions are changing all the time – witness Pope Francis’s priorities and comments. And the increasing partisan polarization we have witnessed surely is impacting how people evaluate the behavior and beliefs of others.

What does all of this mean for Roy Moore’s Senate race next month? Given their politics, I expect the overwhelming percentage of white evangelicals in Alabama to vote for Moore, so his prospects depend on turnout by establishment Republicans, Democratic voting groups and Republican women.

If Moore does win – and he is more likely than not to defeat Democrat Doug Jones – it will be because white evangelicals find his politics more important than his morality.

Can Democrats “Minnick” John Katko and Erik Paulsen?

New York Rep. John Katko and Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen have been very popular with voters. Unbeatable? Maybe not, but certainly well-entrenched and able to win in very challenging environments.

But even popular incumbents have been swept from office during partisan electoral waves, and Republicans Katko and Paulsen should be on your radar as potential canaries in the coal mine – early indicators of whether a big wave is building.

Katko, first elected in 2014 in New York’s 24th C.D., a Syracuse-area seat, and Paulsen, first elected in 2008 in Minnesota 3, a suburban Twin Cities seat, both sit in swing or Democratic leaning seats. Both of their districts went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and for Barack Obama twice.

Katko, who defeated an incumbent Democrat by 20 points in 2014, was reelected with 61% of the vote last year even though Clinton was carrying the district by more than three points. Paulsen, who has been reelected repeatedly by double digits, won a fifth term with 57% in 2016 at the same time Clinton was carrying his district by nine points.

But wave elections have buried incumbents who were popular with grass roots voters and supposedly had personalized their districts. The most obvious example of this is Walter Minnick, whom I’ve pointed to repeatedly over the years.

A moderate Democrat, Minnick narrowly defeated Idaho 1st District GOP incumbent Bill Sali in 2008, the same year that Obama was elected president. John McCain carried the district by 28 points at the same time that Sali, a controversial conservative, was losing narrowly to Minnick.

While in the House, Minnick, a businessman who had worked in the Nixon Administration, joined the Blue Dog Caucus and often sided with Republicans on high profile issues. For example, he opposed Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill, the House Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill and the Affordable Car Act (“Obamacare”).

Because of his voting record, Minnick was endorsed for a second term by the Tea Party Express, Citizens Against Government Waste, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Early polling showed the popular Minnick likely headed for reelection. A mid-July 2010 survey by GOP pollster Bob Moore found Minnick leading by double-digits, while a survey later that same month for the Idaho Hospital Association had the Democrat leading by more than 20 points.

The congressman’s Republican challenger, Raul Labrador, wasn’t regarded as a political heavyweight. Indeed, shortly before Minnick’s 2010 reelection bid ended in defeat, the New York Times ran a piece titled “A Democrat in Idaho Not Hindered by Incumbency.” 

If Minnick was so popular and had voted against the Democrats’ top three legislative agenda items, why did the Democratic congressman lose handily, by almost ten points, to Labrador?

The answer is obvious: the 2010 election was not about individual nominees or members of Congress. It was about partisan control of the United States House of Representatives.

Voters in Minnick’s district may well have liked him and appreciated his votes, but they wanted to put the brakes on the Obama presidency and fire Nancy Pelosi from the speakership. The only way to do that was to dump Minnick and elect Labrador. So, Republicans and Independents, both nationally and in Idaho’s 1st District, turned out to vote Republican.

There was nothing that Democrat Minnick could have done to survive in his conservative and Republican district.

The lesson of Walter Minnick surely is not lost on Democratic strategists preparing for 2018 or on the Republican consultants helping Katko and Paulsen try to survive in the current hostile environment.

To be sure, the Democrats need decent nominees in both districts to win. But if they get them, those challengers need only convince voters that the midterm election is about the need to check Trump and the GOP Congress’s agenda.

Of course, Katko and Paulsen will try to survive by insisting they’ve been independent and hard-working.

But while Paulsen voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, his overall record is that of a generic GOP loyalist. Katko has more ammunition to document his independence, since he voted against his party’s efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Car Act, against the repeal of a key environmental rule on energy company emissions and against the fiscal 2018 Budget Resolution.

But Walter Minnick found that casting a number of high-profile votes against his party was not – and is not — enough to save an incumbent from the “wrong” party in a wave election.

If the midterm election is a referendum on Trump, Paul Ryan and GOP control of the House, as now appears likely, both Katko and Paulsen will be in serious trouble. They are, after all, Republicans in Clinton districts. And if Virginia is any indication of turnout in 2018, both Republicans, no matter how successful they’ve been so far, could find themselves “Minnicked” next year.

Back to the Future in American Politics

For years, I have been writing and speaking about the country’s changing demographics and how that will affect the two parties. The GOP’s long-term prospects were not good, I argued, as a new wave of tolerant voters who valued diversity over tradition appeared poised to change the electorate’s make-up and our politics.

The 2016 elections seemed to prove me wrong, with Trump’s nationalist, culturally conservative message energizing whites, older voters and rural America. But last night’s results, particularly in Virginia, suggest that that demographic evolution is still underway. And those voters produced a Democratic wave that ought to scare GOP campaign strategists.

Younger voters showed that they can be drawn to the polls.

Four years ago, voters age 18-29 constituted 13 percent of the electorate. This year, they were 14 percent of all voters. More importantly, while Democrat Terry McAuliffe carried the group in 2013 by five points (45%-40%), this time those 18-29-year-olds went for Democrat Ralph Northam by 35 points (67%-32%). Greater turnout among voters age 25-29 and 30-39 – and bigger majorities for Northam among those categories – are part of the reason for the huge Democratic win.

White voters constituted a mere 67% of the electorate yesterday in Virginia, a dramatic drop from four years earlier, when whites were 72% of all voters. Yesterday’s white percentage matched the number from last year, when Hillary Clinton carried the state by five points over Donald Trump.

Republican Ed Gillespie drew 57% of whites, a point better than Ken Cuccinelli (R) did in 2013 and two points worse than Trump did last year. That small change, combined with the change in the racial make-up of the electorate and Northam’s 80% support among non-whites, was decisive.

A stunning 41% of yesterday’s voters identified as Democrats. Four years earlier the number was 37% and last year, when Clinton carried the state, only 40% identified as Democrats. Not surprisingly, a Democratic electorate voted more heavily Democratic.

Obviously, much of the Democratic wave showed up in the larger suburban counties, which include many swing voters.

In the D.C. suburbs, Northam won Loudoun County by 20 points and Fairfax County by over 36 points. Four years earlier, McAuliffe carried Loudoun by just over 4 points and Fairfax by 22 points. And the turnout in both counties was massive this time.

The same thing happened in the Richmond area. Northam won Henrico County by 23 points, while McAuliffe won it by 13. Four years ago, Cuccinelli carried Chesterfield County by 8 points, but this year the county was a virtual dead heat.

While all that was happening, Trump’s core supporters stayed loyal to Gillespie.

Trump won 80% of white born-again Christians last year, and Gillespie won 79% of them this time. Gillespie also did well with white men and white women without a college degree – a core Trump group.

Rural Virginia stuck with the Republican. Gillespie rolled up huge percentages in places like Tazewell County (83%), in southwest Virginia, and Smyth County (78%), in south-central Virginia, winning them by bigger margins than Cuccinelli did four years earlier. But those rural counties are not growing and have small populations.

Unexpected Democratic gains down the ballot had a wave-like quality. Democrats won two other statewide offices and more than a dozen seats in the House of Delegates. No wonder most observers are looking at the result as, at least in part, a referendum on the president.

Two days ago, there was uncertainty about Democratic turnout. Northam isn’t the most charismatic politician around, and he defeated a more progressive Democrat for his party’s nomination for governor — raising questions about whether supporters of Bernie Sanders would go to the polls for Northam. Clearly, they did.

Virginia is only one state, and while there is additional anecdotal evidence that Tuesday was an anti-Trump day, there is still a year until the midterms. Things could change – for better or for worse for the president and his party. But it is very possible that yesterday’s results gave us evidence that a midterm partisan wave is building. And that will have an impact on members of Congress, the president and the two parties starting today.

What Will the Virginia Electorate Look Like?

Whether you are rooting for Republican Ed Gillespie or Democrat Ralph Northam in tomorrow’s Virginia gubernatorial contest, you should pay attention to a handful of demographic data as the exit poll results come in.

Yes, exit polls have a margin of error and each election is different, but the outcome tomorrow is likely to depend as much on the makeup of the electorate as on how particular demographic groups vote.

I looked at exit polls from three recent competitive Virginia general elections – the 2016 presidential race, the 2014 Senate race and the 2013 race for governor – and there definitely are patterns to watch. (I checked the exits for the state’s 2009 gubernatorial contest, but all except the most reliably Democratic demographic groups went for Republican Bob McDonnell.)

Democrat Hillary Clinton won the 2016 race by five points, while Democratic Sen. Mark Warner won by a single point in 2014 and Democrat Terry McAuliffe won his gubernatorial race by three points.

Younger voters went solidly for Clinton, Warner and McAuliffe, while the Republicans in those contests – Donald Trump, Ed Gillespie and Ken Cuccinelli – showed strong appeal among voters age 50 and above.

In 2016, voters 18-44 constituted 43 percent of all voters, but two years earlier, they were only 35 percent of all voters. And in 2013, they were 36 percent of all voters

Don’t expect younger voters to constitute 43 percent of all voters tomorrow (turnout among younger voters always drops off in non-presidential years), but the higher percentage they constitute, the better the news for Northam.

Conversely, Gillespie wants an older electorate. If a majority of the electorate is age 50 and over, Gillespie could have a shot. Of course, he’ll still need to carry those voters by five or six points.

The racial makeup of the electorate surely will also be important.

Whites constituted 72 percent of all voters in Virginia in the 2013 gubernatorial contest, 70 percent of all voters in 2014 Senate race, and 67 percent of all voters in 2016. That drop-off is not unusual, of course, since national numbers show white voters turn out at higher rates than some minority group voters in non-presidential years.

Still, one of the big questions for Ralph Northam is whether he can turn out minority voters, so watching the racial make-up of the electorate is extremely important as the exit polls come in. Gillespie won 60 percent of white voters in his extremely narrow loss to Warner three years ago.

Geographically, the Washington, D.C. suburbs and Northern Virginia’s exurbs could well determine the election’s outcome.

Those two regions accounted for 33% of the electorate in 2013, 35% in 2014 and 36% in 2016. Northam should benefit from a larger turnout in those areas, but he also needs to roll up a large margin to win statewide. Clinton won 68% of the vote in the D.C. suburbs when she carried the state by five points, far better than McAuliffe’s 62% showing and Warner’s 61%.

If Northern Virginia voters don’t turn out, or if they don’t give Northam the margin they gave McAuliffe and Warner, Gillespie could well pull an upset.

Finally, the partisan self-identification of the electorate should be a window into the election.

In 2013, 37% of voters described themselves as Democrats compared to 32% who said they were Republicans. One year later, when the Senate race went down to the wire, the electorate was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats (36% each). Two years later, when Clinton won by five points, Democrats constituted 40% all voters compared to 33% who identified as Republicans.

If the 2017 electorate’s partisan mix looks more like it did in 2014, Gillespie’s chances improve. But if a substantial plurality of voters self-identify as Democrats, Northam should be smiling.

There are plenty of other demographics to analyze (gender, education and religion), but the ones I have discussed will get most of my attention tomorrow night. Expect an interesting evening. It’s a must-win election for Northam and the Democratic Party.