How Trump won with evangelicals — and won big
Donald Trump won the white evangelical vote by historic margins, taking a bigger share with the group than Mitt Romney, John McCain and even George W. Bush did, according to exit polls.
In so doing, the president-elect overcame what many assumed would be paralyzing disadvantage for the thrice-married Manhattanite who once favored abortion “in every respect and as far as it goes.”
Trump closed the deal with born-again leaders and voters by telling them, in his blunt way, exactly what they wanted to hear. He made unprecedented promises, including releasing his potential list of Supreme Court justices ahead of time. He also added a litmus test, vowing to only appoint “pro-life” justices.
Now, preparing to take the oath of office, the president-elect finds himself in the unlikeliest position. Once mocked for his “New York values,” Trump is expected to implement arguably the most aggressive social conservative agenda in recent memory.
Not even George W. Bush, a favorite of evangelicals, entered office with an ironclad promise to defund Planned Parenthood. Trump has put that pledge in writing.
“For many conservatives, joy awaited them this morning when they saw that Hillary Clinton wasn’t going to be president,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, speaking the morning after Election Day.
“We are on the cusp of a conservative generation.”
‘The evangelicals love me’
Trump often boasted during the campaign “the evangelicals love me,” and few in the media recognized just how deep that alliance went.
On Wednesday morning, the long-time conservative political activist Ralph Reed delivered a post-election presentation at Washington’s National Press Club.
Reed, the chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, has mobilized evangelicals for nearly three decades and oversaw a massive ground game to help Trump, which he says included 1.2 million door knocks.
White evangelicals made up a record 26 percent of the electorate, according to exit polls, and 81 percent of them voted for Trump. The proportion that voted for Hillary Clinton — 16 percent — is at the lower level of support for a Democratic nominee in recent years.
At the Press Club, Reed asked his audience to imagine slicing a chunk of pie — about a quarter — out of the electorate. The voters remaining, who did not self-identify as white evangelicals, voted 59 percent to 35 percent for Clinton.
Reed concluded that if evangelical voters had “stayed home as some thought they’d do,” or, he added with a smile, “if the rapture occurred,” then Trump would have lost the election “by a Johnson-Goldwater type margin.”
An unlikely alliance
Trump was never the natural candidate for evangelical voters in the Republican presidential primaries.
Ted Cruz was, overwhelmingly, their guy.
Campaigning alongside his father, the preacher Rafael Cruz, the Texas Senator enthralled Christian audiences wherever he went. He landed prized evangelical endorsements and won the straw poll at the high-profile Values Voter Summit for three straight years leading into 2016. Then he won the Iowa caucuses.
Few evangelical leaders saw early promise in Trump. Among the few who did was the Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr.
Most evangelical leaders, however, remained skeptical about Trump long into the primary season. They observed a man who had been married three times, bragged about committing adultery, and said vulgar things about women on Howard Stern’s radio show. Some of these leaders never got there with Trump.
Others, like Penny Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, finally came to support the GOP nominee. She didn’t view Trump as a moral authority. She saw a man who, in her judgment, would be far preferable to a Democrat campaigning with the enthusiastic support of Planned Parenthood.
Nance even went to Trump Tower last week to rally evangelical women. She said she supported Trump “not on gender or personality” grounds but “in defense of the Supreme Court, the sanctity of life, religious freedom, national security, and economic freedom.”
Social conservative leaders warmed to Trump around the time of the convention because he didn’t fight them on the party platform. Instead, Trump’s team supported the most conservative platform in the history of the party, according to Perkins.
Trump did himself further favors when, instead of shifting to the secular center, he doubled down with evangelicals in the general election period.
In Reed’s judgment, Trump made “the most full-throated, aggressive and unapologetic appeal to evangelical voters” in a general election environment since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign.
Trump made numerous appearances in evangelical settings during the general election period, Reed notes. These include his September address to the Values Voter Summit and his October appearance with Christian leader Pat Robertson at Regent University in Virginia Beach.
“For the most part,” Reed said, “the modus operandi of the national Republican Party has been to embrace these voters, their leaders and their organizations and issues in the primaries; and then keep them out of camera range and at arm’s length in the general election.
“Donald Trump never played with that playbook,” he said.
A number of evangelical leaders mentioned the final debate as a key moment.
“The point at which Donald Trump closed the deal with evangelicals was at the last debate,” said Perkins, “when he gave the most concise definition of late-term abortion that any Republican or any presidential candidate in the general election has given.”
Trump attacked Clinton in graphic terms for supporting late-term abortions.
“If you go with what Hillary is saying,” Trump said, “in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.
Getting what they want
Few social conservative leaders expected Trump to win, but now he’s president-elect they’re bullish about his legislative agenda.
With Republicans set to control the House, Senate and the White House, these leaders have high hopes and won’t accept excuses for not delivering.
They expect Trump to swiftly nominate a ninth Supreme Court justice in the mold of the late Antonin Scalia.
“Social conservatives saw as the most existential threat to religious liberty being the filling of the Scalia seat and the shaping of the court for some time to come,” said Ken Blackwell, the former Cincinnati mayor who’s leading president-elect Trump’s domestic transition team.
“The court is the most important,” Blackwell emphasized, in a telephone interview with The Hill on Thursday. “That’s going to be an early signal.”
Movement leaders will hold President Trump to his pledges to repeal ObamaCare and what he calls the “Johnson Amendment.” Scrapping this obscure 1954 law would allow religious organizations to engage in partisan political activities without losing their tax-exempt status.
Pro-life leaders like Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser will fight to ensure that Trump keeps four bold promises he made in writing.
They are: Nominating pro-life justices to the Supreme Court, signing into law legislation that would end late-term abortions nationwide, making the Hyde Amendment permanent law “to protect taxpayers from having to pay for abortions,” and defunding Planned Parenthood.
As leader of Trump’s transition team, Vice President-elect Mike Pence will play a major role in executing Trump’s socially conservative agenda. Movement leaders trust Pence and his relationships on Capitol Hill will be invaluable for moving legislation.
Bubbling under the surface
While they’re not talking about it publicly yet, many social conservative leaders want Trump to overturn Obama’s 2015 executive order on LGBT workplace discrimination. The order prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors “from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
In private conversations, a number of movement leaders say they’re skeptical that Trump will deliver for them when it comes to LGBT issues. They weren’t impressed when Trump said during the primaries that transgender people should be allowed to use whatever bathroom they want.
Nor do many movement leaders expect Trump to use his bully pulpit to advocate for traditional marriage or to invest political capital pushing legislation that would allow a Christian baker, for example, to refuse to serve a gay wedding.
Another concern that’s bubbling under the surface is the speculation that Trump will make Rudy Giuliani his attorney general.
Few leaders will say anything about this publicly, but privately, many social conservatives worry about having the former New York mayor, who supports abortion rights, in charge of the Justice Department.
“Rudy Giuliani would not make a good attorney general,” said Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs at March for Life.
“For pro-lifers the Justice Department and HHS and State Department are probably the three most important agencies for us,” he said, adding that it would be “unacceptable” to have somebody who favor abortion rights in a leadership position in these agencies.
These are genuine concerns for social conservatives, but for the moment the mood is pure jubilation.
“He made some unprecedented promises,” McClusky said of Trump. “I’ve worked on past presidential campaigns and they didn’t make promises like that.”
“I think expectations are that he’s going to fulfill those promises.”
Allie Bice contributed reporting.
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