There continues to be an eager media narrative that evangelicals are at the heart of the Trump movement, and the high profile support of notable evangelicals like Ben Carson, and Jerry Falwell Jr. only contribute to this perspective. In response, there has been significant pushback to this convenient storyline by political scientists such as Joseph M. Knippenberg of Oglethorpe University, and Geoffery C. Layman at Notre Dame and others. This counter-account is based upon increasing data that show Trump is not favored by most evangelicals, has never won a majority of evangelicals in any state thus far, and does poorly among those who actually go to church regularly. Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that the Trump sensation is more of a Jacksonian phenomenon than an evangelical one.
Nevertheless, in the midst of such debates, something appears to have shifted in the March 15th races in Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio. Far from winning pluralities of evangelicals as he did earlier in the season, Trump is now consistently losing the evangelical vote to Ted Cruz (or in the case of Ohio, to John Kasich) and Trump is doing worse among evangelicals than non-evangelicals generally.
The Wisconsin primary continued this trend, and it seems clear that evangelicals helped defeat trump in this key Midwestern state. Overall, evangelicals made up 38 percent of the Wisconsin Republican electorate, and they voted decisively with Cruz. Among self-identified evangelicals, Ted Cruz won 55 percent of the Wisconsin evangelical vote. Ted Cruz then, significantly over-performed with evangelicals relative to his overall Wisconsin total of 48 percent while Trump underperformed among Wisconsin evangelicals (33 percent) relative to his statewide results (35 percent). Thus, far from driving Trump’s momentum, evangelicals in Ohio, Missouri, and Wisconsin were a key element of the Republican coalition that defeated Trump in these crucial states (or created a virtual tie in the case of Missouri).
Similarly, Donald Trump continues to do miserably among “values voters” of all stripes. Among those who say “shared values” mattered most in deciding their vote (a group that likely includes many Catholics and mainline protestants along with evangelicals), a whopping 86 percent did not vote for Trump. More specifically, Cruz pulled in a dominant 66 percent of these “values voters”, while Kasich drew 20 percent. In the end, Trump only won 11 percent of such voters and has never won more than 19 percent in states where this has been measured. In sum, the clear emerging trend outside the South in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri, is that Trump is losing the evangelical vote by decisive numbers to Ted Cruz (or in the case of Ohio, John Kasich); he continues to do poorly among “values voters”; and evangelicals have been a key element in defeating Trump in the states where he has lost.
The question going forward is whether or not this anti-Trump and pro-Cruz trend among evangelicals is an aberration or whether it will continue and gain momentum. It seems likely that Trump will continue to be strong in the Northeast with the upcoming primaries in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island; perhaps not coincidently, these are three states with some of the lowest evangelical populations in the entire country (at roughly 5 percent each according to one source). Despite Trump’s stronghold in the Northeast, evangelical voters may still play an important role in key upcoming states in the West and Midwest. For example, in Indiana and Nebraska, states that Ted Cruz must win to deny Donald Trump a majority of delegates, evangelicals make up 29 percent and 25 percent of the state population respectively, and much higher percentages of the Republican electorate in those states. In the end, this race will likely come down to the results of the massive California primary on June 7th. California may have only nine to fifteen percent of evangelicals statewide, yet this voting block may still play an important role. Despite its reputation for liberal politics, California is still home to more Republicans than any other state and is a haven for evangelical “mega-churches.” Indeed, in January, the widely respected California Field Poll estimated that as many as 42 percent of Republican primary voters will be evangelical Christians. Certainly the Midwest and West have been fertile territory for the Cruz campaign. As Jeffrey H. Anderson of the Weekly Standard has pointed out, “Ted Cruz has now beaten Donald Trump in 11 of 21 states that have been contested to date outside of the South,” including three Midwestern states and three “Western Frontier states.”
To be sure, the final story on the evangelical and Trump intersection in the 2016 primary season has yet to be written. But at this point, evangelical voters in key Midwestern states appear to be undermining rather than underwriting Donald Trump’s campaign. While Donald Trump has famously declared, “I love evangelicals!” it seems that in return some evangelicals may have “lost that loving feeling,” and the full evidence proves that most of them never had it in the first place.
Darren Patrick Guerra is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Biola University specializing in Constitutional Law and American Politics. His writings have appeared in First Things, The Federalist, and Christianity Today. His book, Perfecting the Constitution, was published in 2013 by Lexington Books.