Could Hillary Clinton Win a Significant Share of Evangelical Voters?

Clinton in Philadelphia, April 2016
Clinton campaigning in Philadelphia this past April – Creative Commons (Zachary Moskow)

Republicans have garnered 77-78% of the evangelical vote in the last three major elections (2014, 2012, 2010). And it seems unlikely that Hillary Clinton will even reach the near-quarter of the evangelical vote that Barack Obama won in 2008. In April, Barna found that 81% of evangelicals had an unfavorable view of Hillary Clinton — over twenty points higher than the national average.

But it also seems that that group doesn’t think as highly of her opponent as they have of previous Republican nominees. According to Barna, two-thirds of evangelicals had an unfavorable view of Donald Trump, virtually the same as the rest of Americans (69%). And that number may have grown since April. A recent CBS News poll found that 62% of white evangelicals are likely to vote for Trump, vs. 17% for Clinton, leaving over twenty percent undecided or supporting a third party candidate.

So while the most likely result in November is that large numbers of evangelicals will either hold their nose and again vote Republican or simply stay home, I wonder if there’s not a chance here for Clinton to make significant inroads: not just among progressive evangelicals, but moderates and even conservatives. The 30% of white evangelicals that Al Gore won in 2000 would be a reasonably ambitious target. And the former first lady might not be able to shake the memory of the last time a Clinton received the Democratic nomination for president, when the Republican won the “white born-again” vote in 1996 by only six points (Bob Dole, 49%; Bill Clinton, 43%).

Indeed, it may be that we’re simply back where we were in 2008, when Barack Obama sensed that investing in a robust faith outreach effort would pay electoral dividends. In an October 2007 preview of that election, New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick suggested that the evangelical/Republican alliance that had helped sweep George W. Bush to reelection in 2004 (another 78% share) was showing “signs of coming apart beneath its leaders.” He quoted conservative journalist Marvin Olasky: “That opportunity to lock up that constituency has vanished. The ball now really is in the Democrats’ court.”

Clinton and Obama, 2012
Secretary Clinton and President Obama in 2012 – State Department

Kirkpatrick pointed out that the evangelical alliance with Republicanism was not all that old, and was already being placed under significant pressures, political and other:

The extraordinary evangelical love affair with Bush has ended, for many, in heartbreak over the Iraq war and what they see as his meager domestic accomplishments. That disappointment, in turn, has sharpened latent divisions within the evangelical world — over the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party, among approaches to ministry and theology, and between the generations.

Worse still, the leading Republican candidate at that time “could hardly be less like [conservative evangelicals’] kind of guy”: a brash, basically secular New Yorker with multiple marriages and a record of support for abortion and gay rights. Not Donald Trump, but Rudy Giuliani. (Kirkpatrick noted that James Dobson and other evangelical leaders said in 2007 that they would support a third party or not vote if Giuliani were nominated. Dobson, you may have heard, is now serving on Trump’s evangelical advisory board.) By contrast, “the Democratic presidential front-runners — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards — sound like a bunch of tent-revival Bible thumpers…”

Clinton, It Takes a Village
For example, Kristin points out that Clinton’s first book has a whole chapter on faith and religious community

Clinton a “Bible thumper”? Don’t dismiss that description out of hand. Donald Trump might want listeners to believe that “we don’t know anything about Hillary in terms of religion,” but as many reminded him yesterday, there’s actually been quite a bit of coverage of Clinton’s faith. The book on this is currently being written by my new Anxious Bench colleague, Kristin Du Mez, who reflected earlier this month about the disconnect between the significant role that Clinton’s Methodist faith plays in her life and the public perception of her as non-religious.

Peter Beinart pointed out that Clinton has talked but rarely about her faith during the primary season (here’s one notable exception), when she sought the votes of a disproportionate number of secular and nonreligious Americans. But he suggested that it was time for her to make that kind of appeal:

But by questioning her faith, Trump is giving her an opening for the general election.

Clinton should give a speech about the role religion has played in her life. It might help in Utah, where many Mormons appear repelled by Trump. And it would offer a powerful contrast with the man who now suggests she’s a fake Christian. Clinton knows the Bible far better than Trump. She’s worked far harder to keep her marriage together. And from her early days at the Children’s Defense League, she’s prioritized service while he’s lusted endlessly after superficial, material things.

According to Trump, “We don’t know anything about Hillary in terms of religion.” Actually, people who have been paying attention do. But now might be a good moment to for Clinton to remind everyone else.

It’s not unlikely. The news that her campaign plans to contest all fifty states, even solidly red ones with large evangelical populations, suggests that Clinton will need to broaden her support. If she does decide to make a concerted effort to court a religious group that still makes up a quarter of the population, I suspect that Clinton would do best to focus on the following subgroups:

Evangelicals of Color

I keep mentioning the “white evangelical” vote. But we should go no further without noting that a quarter of evangelicals are not white, up five points from 2007. Clinton already does very well among African Americans (77%-4% over Trump in the CBS poll), who remain one of the most steadfastly religious groups in American society and account for 6% of the evangelical population. 62% of Asian Americans view Clinton favorably, and 13% of that population is evangelical — less than the general population, but still accounting for 2% of the national total.

But the single largest non-white minority within American evangelicalism is also the group that views Trump least favorably. Most polling predicts that Trump will do worse with Hispanics than has any other Republican candidate in modern history, and those Americans now account for over 10% of evangelicals. Earlier this month at The Gospel Coalition, one Latino evangelical argued for Clinton over Trump: “I think that evangelical leaders – in particular, conservative evangelical leaders – need to use all the influence God has given them to encourage thinking Christians to vote for Hillary Clinton. No dithering; no qualifications. The stakes are simply too high.”

(Note that both candidates submitted videos to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, with Clinton emphasizing in hers that “The lessons I’ve learned from my family and church guide me every day of this campaign.”)

Millennials

This week’s much-ballyhooed conference between Trump and a thousand evangelical leaders brought into relief the generational shift in evangelicalism that Kirkpatrick saw coming in 2007. “The Christian right is alive and reasonably well,” concluded Jacob Lupfer, “but what you saw Monday in New York is the movement’s past, not its future.” He was less ready than, say, former Moral Majority leader Michael Farris to pronounce the death of the Christian Right, but Lupfer observed that “the Trump phenomenon is giving clarity to divisions within the Christian right that had been somewhat more arbitrary and amorphous. There is a generational gap among evangelical elites on the Trump question.”

Here too, I think Kirkpatrick may have simply been a decade too early in his analysis:

…a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions. There are many related ways to characterize the split: a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty — problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.

So while Beinart is probably right that millennials of all stripes are wary of public piety from politicians, it’s easy to imagine how a biblically literate social justice Protestant could speak the language of young evangelicals raised to know Micah 6:8 as well as their parents knew John 3:16. I think her expertise in foreign policy would be especially helpful here, as she could articulate a desire to find bipartisan solutions to interrelated global themes of poverty, development, climate change, and immigration, all of which matter deeply to many of the Christian college students and graduates that I know. (Of course, Clinton’s rather hawkish record as senator and secretary of state may undercut her appeal among some of these same young evangelicals.)

Women

Perhaps I’m just reading too much into the overwhelmingly positive response of female friends from church to my post on what Clinton’s nomination means for my daughter, for whom “the most powerful person in the world is more likely than not to be a woman.” Evangelical women might not necessarily want to help make this kind of history if it means supporting someone who disagrees with them on abortion and same-sex marriage.

But I think Jack Jenkins is right that if Clinton were to make any kind of play for conservative evangelicals, “she could harp on the shared values of faith, making a special push for evangelical women, a group who — like roughly 70 percent of women in America, according to Gallup — are often unnerved by Trump’s derogatory remarks about the opposite sex.”

 


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