Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 July 2019
White evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election, producing extensive debate as to who evangelicals are, what it means to be an evangelical in the United States today, and whether the electoral results are surprising or not. This paper offers empirical clarity to this protracted discussion by asking and answering a series of questions related to Trump's victory in general and his support from white evangelicals in particular. In doing so, the analyses show that the term “evangelical” has not become a synonym for conservative politics and that white evangelical support for Trump would be higher if public opinion scholars used a belief-centered definition of evangelicalism rather than relying on the more common classification strategies based on self-identification or religious denomination. These findings go against claims that nominal evangelicals, those who call themselves evangelicals but are not religious, make up the core of Trump's support base. Moreover, strong electoral support among devout evangelicals is not unique to the 2016 election but rather is part of a broader trend of evangelical electoral behavior, even when faced with non-traditional Republican candidates. Finally, the paper explores why white evangelicals might support a candidate like Trump. The paper presents evidence that negative partisanship helps explain why devout evangelicals—despite Trump's background and behaviors being cause for concern—coalesced around his presidential bid. Together, the findings from this paper help make sense of both the 2016 presidential election and evangelical public opinion, both separately and together.
For comments, suggestions, and feedback, I thank Adam Ziegfeld, participants at the University of Pennsylvania American Politics Working Group, and the MIT annual conference in American Politics. I am grateful to Jacob Ausubel, Erin Farrell, Nikki Lin, and Veronica Podolny for their excellent research assistance. Thanks also go to Dan Hopkins and Diana Mutz for the ISCAP data and to David Kinnaman from the Barna Group.
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