Trump, South Carolina, and Evangelicals

February 22, 2016
Donald Trump
Donald Trump won 33 percent of the evangelical vote in the South Carolina primary. / Photo: Michael Vadon

On February 20, Donald Trump resoundingly won the South Carolina Republican primary and reinforced his position as the leading GOP candidate for president.

Exit polling showed that evangelicals accounted for 72 percent of the vote (up from 65 percent four years ago). Among those voters, Trump won 33 percent of the vote, followed by 27 percent for Ted Cruz, and 22 percent for Marco Rubio.

HDS communications turned to Rich Tafel, MDiv '87, director of the Project for the Future Right and minister of the Church of the Holy City in Washington, DC, for insight on how religion is shaping the Republican race and the impact of the evangelical Christian vote.

HDS: The support of evangelicals has been critical over the past 40 years for candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination. Does that hamstring Republicans in a society that’s becoming more pluralistic and socially liberal?

RT: Yes, going back to 1999 in my book, Party Crasher, I made the case that the focus on evangelical voters in the GOP has major pitfalls. First, as you point out, some issues evangelicals opposed, such as gay rights, have already won in the culture and among young evangelicals. That culture war is over. However, the evangelical view on abortion has more wide-spread support. 

Millenials are more socially liberal and many are fiscally conservative, so the GOP positions don't line up with the increasingly diverse rising generation.

What most observers have failed to see is that the GOP establishment has used these issues to trick the evangelicals into voting Republican. The GOP has not delivered on any of its promises to this group. This has led to deep anger at the GOP for manipulating the evangelical vote, and it explains the anger in these circles. It also helps explain why evangelical voters would go with Trump in surprising numbers, because they see him as not lying to them. So this relationship has gone sour both for what the GOP promises and for what it fails to deliver.

HDS: Does Trump's success indicate that evangelical voters are more or less important to candidates vying for the GOP nomination?

RT: It shows that evangelicals are made like most Americans who now put fear of government failure as their number one fear according to Pew Research. Also, the theory has been that the evangelical vote is monolithic and operates off a checklist of issues. This vote is complicated and mirrors many similar traditional values perspectives you'd see among Democratic African American voters on social issues. In both cases, those groups have competing priorities and don't fit into cookie-cutter stereotypes so beloved by the pundit class. Most put economic issues or emotional connection ("they fight for me") above a checklist. 

HDS: We're used to thinking of evangelicals as a monolithic block, yet this year they are voting for an array of conservative candidates. Are evangelicals still generally "values voters," or is more at play here—anger at government, less engagement than previously, something else?

RT: They share anger with Washington's failure with the general public. Both parties have created, in my opinion, false causes to demonize. On the right, they fear a leftward agenda to make America secular like Europe. On the left, they stoke fears of bigots, big donor money, corporations, and banks. 

In our hyper-partisan culture, both parties have lit the fuse of anger and demonization of people in the other party to drive voters to the polls. The media has been complicit as an entertainment industry driven by sales in commercials. What drives sales in an information-soaked culture is hyperbolic rhetoric. This is galvanizing Americans, and evangelicals are part of that. 

HDS: Donald Trump received the most votes of evangelicals (33 percent) in South Carolina. The thrice-married Trump doesn't seem to fit the evangelical profile. What’s going on?

RT: These voters are much more complicated than just being evangelicals. Aspects of the GOP evangelical vote are very often the poorer white vote without college education. There is no doubt they have lost out on many of the positions of the GOP/Democratic establishments on trade and TARP, and they have no plan for working class workers to move up. This anger defies party lines and drives much of the anger in the minority community in the Democratic party as well.

HDS: If the fall general election comes down to Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton, what will evangelical voters do?

RT: My guess is that would be pretty easy for them—Trump. GOP-registered evangelicals will not vote for Hillary. You could make a very good argument that Hillary is much more a person of faith and closer to evangelicals on her understanding of God than Trump. But voters aren't moved by logic; they are moved by emotions. Trump giving the middle finger to the GOP establishment—saying what they're afraid to say but believe—and his ability to win is attractive to GOP evangelicals.

HDS: What issues are most important to evangelical voters these days?

RT: The biggest issues for evangelical voters are economic. There is a deep-seated fear their kids will end up with a job at Walmart, if they are lucky. There's no path forward. They see the elite culture focused on minority poor people and feel no one is fighting for them.

Beyond economic issues, they have a deep-seated fear they are losing their religious liberty and country. They have had their faith exist in a privileged position for decades, so they perceive their loss of privilege as a loss of rights. They don't have the same view of the separation of church and state as the founders. They believe that America and their faith are one in the same.

Add to that secular activists who are using their power to force issues on evangelicals, and it makes that narrative very real.

Religious liberty is the phrase you are going to hear more of. There will be strong pushback on some social issues, like gay marriage, because of the overreach of the secular left. This will empower the narrative of an attack on religious liberty and will be exploited by Ted Cruz-like candidates. 

HDS: What did the evangelical vote in South Carolina possibly tell us about the way other Bible-belt states might vote in the coming weeks?

RT: It tells us that, as moderate voters abandon both the GOP and the Democratic parties, both evangelicals on the right and African Americans on the left will grow in the percentage of impact in the primaries.

Trump has clearly shown he can bite into the evangelical vote while winning many other categories. Cruz, the authentic candidate for evangelicals, will be hurt by Trump getting their votes. Rubio is now talking up his opposition to gay marriage and throwing "Jesus" around in his rhetoric all in attempts to get these voters. So they will continue to split this vote.

It means that Cruz and Rubio will be hurt in a general election if they go forward. Trump is different. And if he wins the nomination, he's likely to win the general. 

HDS: Is there a difference in the kind of evangelical Christian who voted for Trump and those who voted for Cruz or Rubio? Meaning, is there something that separates or distinguishes—whether through religious practice or belief—someone who voted for Trump and someone who voted for Cruz?

RT: Yes, if you are a pure values checklist evangelical and you believe gay marriage and abortion are the most important issue to you, then Cruz is your guy. We make decisions with our feelings and justify with our head.

If you are evangelical and are concerned about a variety of issues, including, whether your kids will get a job, you are with Trump.