NEW YORK, N.Y. – President Donald Trump’s strong white evangelical support poses a challenge to Democrats: how to connect with a group of Christian voters whose longtime GOP lean makes them compelling antagonists in a polarized era.
Former President Barack Obama reached out to evangelicals in notable fashion during his White House bids, tapping well-known pastor Rick Warren to appear at his first inauguration and vowing to safeguard religious liberty as he launched a coalition of faith voters in 2012. While Obama's efforts paid some dividends, Trump has complicated that task this year for Democrats who are balancing an appeal to religious voters with opposition to the sitting president's agenda on issues important to evangelicals.
The value of making political space for more conservative-leaning evangelicals may be less urgent for Democrats now, amid a grueling primary where the party’s liberal base holds significant sway. But once Democrats choose a nominee, cutting into Trump's popularity with white evangelicals -- not to mention securing votes in minority evangelical communities -- could make a pivotal difference come November’s general election.
To that end, multiple Democratic presidential hopefuls have talked about their faith on the campaign trail, weaving it into their approach to issues from health care to economics. Among the most vocal Democrats on that front is former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, who asserted his party’s connection to religion last week during its final primary debate before next month’s first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus.
“If a guy like Donald Trump keeps trying to use religion to somehow recruit Christianity into the GOP, I will be standing there not afraid to talk about a different way to answer the call of faith and insist that God does not belong to a political party,” Buttigieg said.
But courting persuadable white evangelicals is likely more difficult under Trump, as the Democratic center of gravity moves left and the voting bloc embraces positions at odds with the party's consensus. For example, about two-thirds of white evangelicals backed significant new restrictions on abortion in AP-NORC polling conducted last month -- limits that no Democratic presidential candidate would support.
Michael Wear, who advised Obama on faith outreach during his first term and reelection, said that seeking a dialogue with evangelicals “will require making some moves that will be critiqued, even from parts of their base."
He added, however, that such work is doable and critical to a Democratic victory in the fall: “If Democrats think they’re going to go in this election against Donald Trump and not reach out to anybody who doesn’t already support them, that is a recipe for failure."
Despite Trump’s nearly 8 in 10 approval among self-identified white evangelical Protestants in last month's AP-NORC polling, there are still some who are open to supporting Democratic candidates.
About 1 in 10 evangelicals overall identified as independents during the 2018 elections, according to AP’s VoteCast, as did about 1 in 10 white evangelicals. Of those white evangelicals without a partisan lean, about 4 in 10 backed Democrats.
Latino evangelicals are another potentially critical bloc of swing voters, with VoteCast data showing them evenly divided between the parties, while black evangelicals strongly lean Democratic. Trump's reelection campaign is already making its own outreach efforts to both constituencies.
Among evangelicals overall, 37% disapproved of Trump in last month’s AP-NORC survey.
Still, whether Democrats can court evangelicals without moderating their message to a degree that would alienate their core supporters remains unclear.
White evangelicals in particular “are there on an island with the president,” said Bradley Onishi, an associate professor of religion at Skidmore College. “If Democrats try to go across the water and reach that island, they’re going to leave parts of their base that don’t want compromise.”
Texas pastor Jack Graham, a leading evangelical Trump supporter, predicted that the president would get “landslide support from evangelicals” in November. Black and Latino evangelicals could give Trump’s party room to create “a broader tent next time,” Graham added.
“I’m certain there are Democratic candidates at local levels, even state levels,” who embrace evangelical positions on abortion, same-sex marriage and religious liberty, said Graham, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “But the national party itself and the platform, the current bevy of candidates, certainly are not inclined to welcome evangelicals into their movement.”
Nonetheless, communicating with evangelicals is already an animating cause for Doug Pagitt, a progressive pastor whose Vote Common Good nonprofit launched a nationwide tour this month to help make its faith-based case against Trump to voters and candidates.
“We’re not trying to make Democrats out of people,” said Pagitt, but rather to “help voters realize they don’t have to be hard-wired to voting for Republicans.” At the heart of that effort is an emphasis on interfaith “common good” values aimed at shaking the perception that Democrats are not as interested as the GOP in reaching devout Christian voters.
“We say to candidates, when we do candidate training, that religious voters don’t need you to be like them … but they do want you to like them,” Pagitt said. “A lot of us don’t know if you like us or if you’re simply tolerating us.”
Evangelicals are generally defined by several traits that contrast them with mainline Protestants. Those include a “born again” connection to their faith, an emphasis on sharing the gospel through evangelism or other activity, a view of the Bible as an authoritative text, and a belief in the importance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice through crucifixion.
When one white Iowa evangelical voter asked Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren earlier this month why he should support her despite their disparate views of abortion and same-sex marriage, the Democratic presidential candidate's answer illustrated her party's thorny path to making inroads with the voting bloc.
In response to the voter, who described himself as “bombarded by Democratic candidates who criticize my beliefs," Warren acknowledged their differences. A woman deciding whether to end a pregnancy should be able to call on her family, Warren said, as well as “her priest, or her rabbi or her pastor" — without the government interceding.
Warren, a Methodist and former Sunday school teacher, then urged the evangelical voter to join her in considering “the parts where we come together on, on the importance of investing in every single baby in this country.”
Associated Press director of public opinion research Emily Swanson contributed to this report from Washington.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.