One major theme of this election year has been the role of evangelical voters in Donald Trump’s electoral success. To be sure, there has been much division among evangelical leaders and the evangelical rank-and-file over whether or not to support Trump. Given the controversy, it is worth exploring how evangelicals, and religious voters generally, ultimately chose to vote. Trump did well among key segments of the faithful, winning clear majorities among evangelical, Protestant, and Catholic voters.
For starters, Trump drew an impressive 81 percent of those who self-identified as “born again”—three points higher than Mitt Romney’s 78 percent in 2012 and George W. Bush’s 78 percent in 2004. Interestingly, the proportion of those answering “yes” to the born-again question remained steady from 2012 to 2016, making up 26 percent of the electorate in both election years. Trump’s 81 percent contrasts starkly with the 36-percent plurality that he garnered among self-described evangelicals in the Republican primaries prior to the Indiana contest. After the race became a battle between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, the evangelical rank-and-file slowly came around to supporting Trump.
Trump underperformed Romney by seven points among voters who attend church more than once a week and by nine points among those who attend weekly. But he still did better among these voters than among those who seldom or never attend services. Regular church attenders made up more of the religious electorate overall (49 percent, compared to 42 percent in 2012), likely mitigating his lower numbers among this group. Thus, while fewer of the most religious voters supported Trump than Romney, they still gave more support to Trump than to Clinton.
The Protestant vote declined by one point as a percentage of the electorate between 2012 and 2016, for a total of 52 percent of the overall vote. The Catholic vote dropped by 2 percent, for a 23-percent overall share (though these numbers are up compared to 2000 and 2004). Despite these decreases, Trump increased his share of Protestants by 1 percent, for a 58-percent total, and increased his share of the Catholic vote by 4 percent, for a 52-percent total. It is worth noting that Trump carried a majority of Catholics, while Romney did not.
Though the Supreme Court is far from a consistent proxy issue for social conservatives or religious voters, it does provide a flashpoint for issues of religious liberty, traditional moral values, and abortion-on-demand. In view of this, it is telling that 70 percent of the electorate said that the composition of the Supreme Court was the most important or an important factor in their vote for president. Trump won these voters, 50 percent to 46 percent. Among those to whom the Court mattered little, Trump lost by ten percentage points. The composition of the Court thus was a major factor in the election’s outcome, and religious voters seemed to emphasize it in debates over whether or not to support Trump.
Given the large gaps between plurality support for Trump in the primaries and majority support for him in the general election, evangelicals clearly needed time to warm up to Trump. Evangelical support for Trump, while robust, seems to have been driven by prudential judgment and fear of a Clinton presidency, rather than by blind acceptance. To the extent that this is true, evangelical support for Trump may very well be “contingent support” that could evaporate if Trump does not deliver as promised.
Darren Patrick Guerra is associate professor of political science at Biola University, specializing in constitutional law and American politics.