There has been much handwringing in the evangelical world over the seemingly high levels of support for Donald Trump among self-proclaimed evangelical voters in Republican primaries. Likewise this phenomenon has drawn much attention from the mainstream media, who seem eager to point out the apparent discord that religious believers would flock to such a controversial figure, one who flaunts his past moral failings, publicly uses indecent language, and “isn’t sure” if he’s ever asked God for forgiveness. For example, Charles Krauthammer muses on why evangelicals prefer Trump and in the debate last night Megyn Kelly referenced a close association between Trump and evangelical voters. While it is true that Trump has won pluralities of evangelicals in some key states it is simply inaccurate to say that evangelicals solidly support Trump. Indeed the notion that anything close to a majority of evangelical voters support Trump is simply a media myth.
For example, when looking at Super Tuesday exit polls in the southern states several things are striking. First, while Trump has in some states carried a plurality of evangelical voters, the same data reveals that, on average, 64% of evangelicals in all southern states voted for someone other than Trump. Indeed, a majority (51%) voted collectively for either Rubio or Cruz instead of Trump. In addition, one must also realize that these polls only address Republican primary voters, but there are significant groups of evangelicals who are Democrats or Independents, so the anti-Trump vote amongst all evangelicals in the country might reach 80-90% once non-Republican primary voters are accounted for. With these numbers it seems difficult to draw the conclusion that evangelicals widely support Trump.
Furthermore, when one takes a closer look into the numbers it becomes clear that Trump does not come out on top among those voters for whom the religious faith of the candidate matters most. Voters in all the southern states except Oklahoma were asked, “How much does it matter to you that a candidate shares your religious beliefs?” Among those that responded “a great deal” Trump did not receive even a plurality of their votes. Ted Cruz beat Trump in this category by an average of 4 points. Similarly, on average, a majority (55%) of voters who answered “a great deal” voted for either Cruz or Rubio. Trump did better among those who said the religious views of the candidate mattered only “somewhat” and had his highest numbers among those who said religion did not matter at all. Even in the “somewhat” category 59% voted for someone other than Trump and 46% voted for either Cruz or Rubio.
Indeed there seemed to be a clear trend on Super Tuesday. Trump’s numbers were best among those with no religious motivation (41%) and he had his worst numbers among those who were most motivated by religion (30%). Conversely, Cruz’s numbers were best among the religiously motivated (34%) and lowest among those who had no religious motivation (13%). Rubio exhibited a slight inverse trend from 20-27% with his support rising slightly as religious motivation among voters went down. Put another way Trump did worst amongst those to whom religion mattered most and he did his best among those to whom it mattered not at all.
Perhaps the strongest indication that serious evangelicals are not the backbone of Trump’s campaign was seen in the question that asked “which candidate qualities mattered most in deciding how you voted today?” Trump is off the charts among voters who said “telling it like it is” is their main concern; Trump garnered in some cases 70-80% of those voters. However, among those voters who said that “shared values” mattered most Trump performed horribly; he only attracted an average of 13% of these voters and he failed to top 20% in any southern state. By contrast, Cruz averaged 41% of “values voters”, and Rubio average 28% of these voters with neither of the two dropping below 20% of such voters across the entire south.
In the end, a deeper look at the exit polls reveal that Trump has failed to earn a majority of evangelicals in any southern state thus far and a vast super-majority of evangelicals have consistently supported other candidates. Furthermore, to those who religion matters most, Trump’s support is on average the weakest, while Ted Cruz’s is on average the strongest. Lastly, very few actual “values voters” are supporting Trump and they are instead opting for Cruz and Rubio in much larger numbers. Evangelical voters are not a monolith and defining them or generalizing about them is difficult at best, but it seems clear that they are not, as a group, Trump supporters. In short, headlines suggesting that evangelicals as a group support Trump seem rooted in a convenient media narrative rather than the facts.
Darren Patrick Guerra is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Biola University specializing in Constitutional Law and American Politics. His book Perfecting the Constitution was published in 2013 by Lexington Books.