Evangelicals have stuck by Trump. But polls hint at trouble ahead.
By Gabby Orr* – POLITICO
from Trump’s Syria decision has left him scurrying to shore up a critical
element of his base.
“I was concerned about it, but feel more
confident after talking with POTUS and seeing the results of the cease-fire and
the economic sanctions,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who initially
blasted Trump’s decision to ditch the Kurds as a “huge mistake,” wrote in an
email to POLITICO on Tuesday. (In remarks from the White House Diplomatic
Reception Room less than 24 hours later, Trump announced he would be lifting
those same economic sanctions against Turkey — remarks that came a day after
the U.S. special envoy for Syria engagement told a Senate panel the Turkish
military offensive had killed hundreds of Kurdish fighters.)
The outrage over Trump’s Syria decision,
combined with the growing threat of impeachment, has left the president facing
a new test in his relationship with white evangelicals as signs of tensions
have begun to surface in recent polls. For some, his culturally conservative
agenda may not be enough to keep them from walking away if the situation in
Syria deteriorates further.
It’s a dilemma that has left Trump’s
biggest religious boosters asking themselves whether his sky-high support with
so-called values voters will last through next November.
“If he’s going to win in 2020,” said the
longtime Trump friend, “he has to be north of the 81 percent [of white
evangelicals] he won in 2016. I’m not suggesting that the polling is all of a
sudden going to show that his support is plummeting because of Syria. But if it
stays stagnant, he’s a one-term president.”
White evangelicals have long grappled with
a president they consider their greatest champion since the Reagan years, but
who rarely approaches policy matters or discourse with their preferred tone or
moral code. They have asked Trump not to curse at his campaign rallies, despite
standing by him when he was caught on tape making vulgar comments about women
in 2016. They have endorsed his hard-line immigration policies, but privately
urged him to ditch the harsh language about immigrants and refugees. And they
have consistently cited his appointment of anti-abortion judges as a hallmark
of his presidency without mentioning the uncomfortable moment when, as a
candidate, he suggested punishing women who choose to end their pregnancies.
Now, the president’s evangelical allies are
pressing him to consider the consequences of pulling troops from Syria, which
he has cast as a financially sensible decision. And they are warning him of
trouble ahead if he doesn’t — both in the region, where U.S.-backed Kurdish
fighters have been killed by Turkish airstrikes in recent days, and with his
political standing back home.
“This is a danger zone for this
administration when it comes to evangelicals. They see religious persecution,
Iran gaining a foothold, Israel facing threats and the possibility of ISIS
reemerging, and what Trump keeps talking about is the land, and the money, and
the deal-making,” said the longtime Trump friend. “The moral compass is
missing, and he’s off balance here with evangelicals.”
Unlike other voting blocs that have slowly
moved away from Trump, white evangelicals have displayed a certain level of
elasticity in their support for him — opting to adapt to the worst moments and
elements of his presidency, even when they have shown initial signs of shock.
“He’s a blue-chip stock for evangelicals
and they’re cashed in fully. If there’s fluctuation in the market, they always
ride it out,” said the Trump pal.
It’s an enduring mystery of the Trump era
and one that prompts questions about tribalism and the state of both major
political parties. Do white evangelicals stand by Trump because there is no
suitable Republican or Democratic alternative? Or do they embrace him because
that’s what they’ve seen the most prominent among them do?
“My gut says white evangelicals will jump
when and if Fox News does,” said Elesha Coffman, a scholar of American religion
at Baylor University. “Any movement, if we see it, isn’t going to come from
within their religious communities.”
A lengthy study released this week by the
Public Religion Research Institute offers other clues about the current state
of Trump’s relationship with white evangelical voters, as well as why it could
change between now and Election Day. In striking terms, the survey captures
just how substantial the president’s support is among white evangelicals: 99
percent of GOP-leaning white evangelical Protestants oppose impeaching and
removing Trump from office and 63 percent say he has done nothing to damage the
dignity of the presidency, separating them from majorities across all other
major religious groups that said he has.
Other figures raise questions about the durability
of white evangelicals’ support for Trump, particularly given the precarious
position he finds himself in with Syria.
For example, 63 percent of white
evangelical Protestants in the PRRI study said terrorism is a major concern for
them — more than immigration (55 percent), which has been Trump’s single
biggest issue, or health care (53 percent). Those figures come amid warnings
that the U.S. pullout from Syria could rekindle terrorism in Europe and cause a
resurgence of the Islamic State. Already, a separate NPR/Marist survey found
that nearly 30% of white evangelicals believe U.S. security has been weakened
The worse the situation becomes in Syria
the more comfortable white evangelicals might feel about distancing themselves
from Trump, Coffman said. That happened gradually during the Watergate era,
when rank-and-file evangelicals slowly walked away from President Richard M.
After the Syria cease-fire, “will things
get much worse? Will we get pictures of children who get victimized by chemical
weapons? Will there be enough of a rebuke from Republicans or more voices
inside white evangelicalism speaking out about this?” Coffman asked, adding
that “it’s possible we’ll see movement then, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”
There is also the shadow that impeachment
has cast over Trump’s presidency, and how white evangelicals are responding.
A much-discussed Fox News poll found that nearly three in 10 white evangelicals want the president impeached and removed from office — a figure that startled some officials on Trump’s 2020 campaign, according to an outside adviser. And in the NPR/Marist survey, which was taken after House Democrats began their impeachment inquiry, only 62 percent of white evangelicals said they definitely plan to vote for Trump next fall.
That’s the number Trump’s top evangelical supporters are closely monitoring and cautioning the president not to ignore. Eighty-one percent of the white evangelical vote in 2016 was enough to carry him to the White House, they say, but with underwater approval ratings among other key constituencies he needs to do even better next fall.
Orr is a White House reporter for POLITICO. She previously covered Donald
Trump’s ascension to power for the Washington Examiner, from the day he
announced his campaign to his transition to the White House. She spent one
month in 2016 embedded in New Hampshire, where she covered several Republican
candidates prior to the state’s first-in-the-nation primary. Orr has also
worked for The New York Post and Fox News’ digital platform.