10 min read

Why evangelical voters are standing by their man

Takeaways and observations from a weekend spent with the entire GOP field at a top Christian conservative gathering.
Why evangelical voters are standing by their man
Photo by Gabe Fleisher

Good morning! It’s Monday, June 26, 2023. The 2024 elections are 498 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

There are a few theories for how Donald Trump could still yet lose the Republican presidential nomination.

For starters, some Republicans continue to believe that Trump will simply implode of his own accord, bogged down by the weight of his legal troubles and personal drama. Two indictments later, we can pretty much rule that theory out.

Then there’s the possibility that Trump’s unpopularity among college-educated voters — even Republican ones — could sink him. After all, college-educated voters are the sole GOP demographic among which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis consistently outperforms Trump. (This gap is sometimes known as the “beer track”/“wine track” divide.) But with highly-educated voters making up a shrinking proportion of the GOP, DeSantis’ dominance among those with degrees might not be enough to topple the ex-president.

A third theory is that the path to defeat Trump might run through evangelical voters. At first glance, this idea makes sense: evangelicals make up about 60% of the Republican primary electorate, and they took time to warm to Trump initially. A philandering, thrice-married, formerly pro-choice celebrity was never an obvious fit for “values voters”; it’s part of why Trump lost the Iowa caucuses back in 2016. Maybe if DeSantis just visits all 99 counties in Iowa, he too can best Trump in the Hawkeye State and then take that surge of momentum with him across the country.

That last theory was put to the test this weekend, as the entire Republican field dutifully trekked to Washington, D.C. to address the “Road to Majority” conference, hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a prominent conservative Christian group. It speaks to the power of evangelical voters in the GOP that the confab was the first event to draw every declared Republican candidate for president.

I was there throughout the weekend, watching closely as Trump, DeSantis, and all the rest delivered their pitches to the Christian right. Here are my top takeaways:

1. DeSantis is liked — but Trump is loved.

All of the candidates at “Road to Majority” were received respectfully enough. They all hit the right notes — a jab at Biden here, a salute to the Supreme Court there — and received applause at the right times.

Even former Vice President Mike Pence, who was booed at this conference in 2021, stayed away from January 6th this time and was rewarded for it. I was especially struck by entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy’s reception: his speech about America being “lost in the wilderness” (thanks to “wokism, transgenderism, climatism, Covidism” and “globalism”) received more standing ovations than almost anything else the entire weekend.

But nothing compared to the rapturous applause that was given to Trump.

Perhaps, from the beginning, it wasn’t a fair fight. The conference organizers — who promised to stay neutral in the 2024 primary — scheduled most of the presidential contenders back-to-back in morning slots on Friday and Saturday. Only Trump was allowed to speak at the Saturday night “Patriot’s Gala,” the centerpiece of the weekend. While his rivals were all given precise 15-minute slots (with a red sign in the back flashing “STOP” when they ran out of time), only Trump was given free rein (which he ran with, speaking for a full 90 minutes).

When he arrived on stage, Trump stood for several minutes while “God Bless the USA” played in the background, basking in the applause as attendees stayed on their feet (some standing on chairs, others donning MAGA hats) cheering and chanting his name.

As usual, when Trump was mentioned in his rivals’ speeches, it was mostly done implicitly, like when DeSantis called for an end to the Republican Party’s “culture of losing.” (Hmm, I wonder who that was about?) The only candidate to break that mold was the ever-pugnacious (except when he isn’t) Chris Christie, who directly criticized Trump for his “failure of leadership” and was promptly booed for it.

“You can boo all you want,” Christie responded. “But here’s the thing: our faith teaches us that people have to take responsibility for what they do. People have to stand up and take accountability for what they do. And I cannot stand by.”

In interviews throughout the conference, attendees showered praise on many of the candidates, especially DeSantis. One voter, 67-year-old Tamu Davenport from Baltimore, even told me that she was still holding out for a Trump-DeSantis ticket. (When I asked how she squared that with Trump calling the Florida governor “DeSanctimonious,” she let out a groan.) “If Trump wasn’t running, I probably would go with him,” great-grandmother Janet Niemeyer from Pittsburgh, told me of DeSantis.

This tracks with several polls that show, despite Trump pouring millions of dollars into attacking him, DeSantis’ favorability rating remains high in the GOP. The Trump-DeSantis rivalry has not turned Republican voters off from respecting DeSantis or his extensive record of accomplishments. But that doesn’t mean they will support him. In my interviews, I was unable to find a single voter who was planning to back the Florida governor over the ex-president.

2. Gender issues eclipse abortion.

The conference took place on the same weekend as the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. (“Did you set this up on purpose?” Trump asked.) Naturally, speaking before the passionately pro-life audience, almost every candidate paid homage to the decision and discussed their views on abortion.

But I was struck by the fact that many candidates spent more time talking about “woke gender ideology” (the fight over transgender rights) than abortion — and, in many cases, the applause for mentions of gender issues was louder and more forceful than the response received when discussing abortion.

DeSantis, for example, mentioned the six-week abortion ban he has signed into law in Florida. But he didn’t dwell on it, giving the law only a quick mention. Contrast that with his focus on transgender issues, which he returned to repeatedly throughout the speech. “In the state of Florida, when...people wanted to put gender ideology in the schools, we drew a line in the sand and said ‘no,’” DeSantis declared, to loud applause. He wasn’t alone.

Pence: “We will end the gender ideology that is running rampant in our schools.”

Ramaswamy: “There are two genders.”

Even former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who vetoed a bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors in 2021, seemed to have changed his tune: “Minors should not be allowed to have gender-reassignment surgery,” he said Friday.

In a speech that received thunderous applause at several points, some of Trump’s most popular lines revolved around gender, such as his promises to keep “men out of women’s sports,” to sign a law banning gender-affirming surgery for minors, and to sign an executive order defunding any schools promoting “transgender insanity.”

Perhaps conservatives are no longer as motivated by abortion, now that they succeeded in overturning Roe. (There are some polls that show that.) Perhaps candidates are no longer as interested in discussing abortion after the backlash that followed the Supreme Court’s decision; maybe focusing on transgender issues seems like a safer bet politically.

Whatever the reason, it was clear from this weekend that evangelical voters are moving towards a new core issue. Their interest in abortion appears to be waning; the battle against “woke gender ideology” is now all the rage.

3. Trump dances around an abortion stance.

Speaking of abortion, the Faith and Freedom Coalition sure would have been a perfect venue for Trump to clarify his position on the issue.

There was even some indication beforehand that Trump might do so: a Trump aide promised Semafor’s Shelby Talcott before the speech that Trump’s address would outline “specific plans to continue protecting life in his second term in office.”

But it really didn’t.

On abortion, the driving question of the weekend was whether candidates would pledge to support a national abortion ban as president, generally pegged at a 15-week cutoff. Some contenders fell in line: Pence, for example, challenged the entire field to “support a ban on abortion before 15 weeks as a minimum nationwide standard.”

Other candidates were more vague: Hutchinson promised only to “sign a federal law to restrict abortion” if Congress passes one, without specifying what he hoped those restrictions should be or whether he would push lawmakers to do so.

During his own speech at the conference, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham joined Pence in calling on GOP candidates to endorse a 15-week ban. “If you cannot do that, you should not be the nominee of the Republican Party,” Graham added.

But Graham’s own endorsed candidate for the Republican nomination — Trump — notably declined to endorse that standard.

Calling himself the “most pro-life president in American history,” Trump bragged about the role his Supreme Court appointees played in ending Roe. “Good people, strong people, smart people have been fighting for 50 years” to overturn Roe and “never even came close,” he said. “I got it done.”

From there, he appeared content to let the states decide how to legislate abortion, without the federal government setting a nationwide cutoff. Although he did say that there “remains a vital role for the federal government” on abortion, Trump also added that “the greatest progress for pro-life is now being made in the states, where everyone wanted it to be.”

In Trumpian fashion, he said that the end of Roe had given conservatives the “power to negotiate something that will be good for everybody.” The Supreme Court decision had given pro-life activists the leeway to secure more stringent abortion restrictions in the states, he seemed to say; if he felt that Congress and the president should implement a 15-week (or any-week) ban, he did not specify it.

One of Trump’s skills in 2016 was shedding many of the unpopular policies that Republican politicians had previously adopted, dropping standard GOP positions like supporting free trade or standing by the Iraq war. (Back then, he also moved to the left on LGBT issues.) 40% of voters that year said Trump’s views were “a mix of liberal and conservative,” compared to 28% who said the same about Hillary Clinton. Trump tacked far to the right on some issues, but took pains to moderate himself on others.

Trump’s vagueness (and relative moderation) on abortion this time around is all the more notable because he was quite specific (and radical) Saturday night when it came to other policy areas, from calling for an end to birthright citizenship to endorsing direct elections for school principals.  

But on abortion, he seemed to understand that the Republican position needed some fine-tuning. “The politicians are gonna have to learn to talk about this issue,” Trump said. In a revealing move, he was the only candidate I heard this weekend who made a point to say — in front of a very pro-life crowd — that he believes abortion restrictions should include exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother.

The comment about exceptions received only tepid applause from the audience. But, broadly, the evangelical activists seemed prepared to give Trump a pass. In 2020, progressive activists pushed the Democratic field to the left with a series of litmus tests designed to enusre partisan purity. But in 2024, conservative seemed willing to let Trump get by with a knowing wink and nod. He will appoint the right justices, they seemed to say; why why make him clarify a stance that can only hurt him in the general?

When I asked Tom Ellis, an engineer from Atlanta, if he minded that Trump hadn’t endorsed a 15-week abortion ban, he laughed and said no. “He wouldn’t get elected if he did that!” Ellis replied.

4. “He has something to finish.”

It should not be surprising to hear that the vast majority of Trump’s 90-minute stemwinder was spent on himself.

He spoke at length about the two indictments he now faces, saying that he viewed each one as a “great badge of courage.” (In a comment that will likely not help his legal case, Trump insisted that he “had every right to have these documents,” thereby appearing to confirm that he had the classified documents prosecutors alleged he kept.)

But I found it notable how much Trump tried to make the indictments into a collective experience — really, a collective grievance — and by how effective that strategy was among the audience. “I’m being indicted for you,” Trump said, “and I believe the ‘you’ is more than 200 million people that love our country.” The crowd roared in approval. (When I asked about the indictments, on two separate occasions, voters responded by saying he had already been acquitted, seemingly conflating impeachments with indictments.)

For someone known for his use of the word “I,” it was also interesting that Trump repeatedly used the phrase “when we become the 47th president,” emphasizing his voters’ role in his ascension.

To return to my first point, DeSantis is a well-liked politician among this slice of the Republican electorate. But Trump is the leader of a movement, not just a mere politician, a difference that comes across when speaking to GOP voters.

“I think he has something to finish,” Janet Niemeyer, the Pittsburgh great-grandmother told me.

After investing so much time and energy in supporting Trump over the past seven years, these voters were not ready to quit now. They believed the U.S. is in a “spiritual civil war,” as multiple speakers at the conference said, and that Trump was the sole candidate with the backbone to carry the GOP across the finish line.

“He is being hunted. He was in office for four years, and every day — for 365 days, times four — they were after him,” Tamu Davenport, of Baltimore, said. “I don’t know that anybody else is built for that.”

As Trump crowed from the stage on Saturday: “I’m probably the only president who’s been indicted and my numbers went up!”

More news you should know

RUSSIA: “As the dust settled on the most serious challenge in decades to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority, Washington and its allies struggled to make sense of a head-spinning series of historic events that saw mercenary forces race up a highway to within 120 miles of Moscow on Saturday, then abruptly turn back after their leader, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, agreed to stand down and go to Belarus for an uncertain exile.” — Washington Post

TRUMP INC: “Facing multiple intensifying investigations, former President Donald J. Trump has quietly begun diverting more of the money he is raising away from his 2024 presidential campaign and into a political action committee that he has used to pay his personal legal fees.” — New York Times

RACE TO WATCH: “Delaware Democrat Sarah McBride, who in 2020 became the nation’s first openly transgender state senator, is setting out to make history again – this time as the first out transgender person elected to Congress.” — The Hill

Today’s political planner

All times Eastern.

President Biden will deliver remarks at 11:45 a.m. on expanding high-speed internet access. Later, he will have lunch with Vice President Harris.

The House and Senate are both on recess this week.

The Supreme Court will release orders at 9:30 a.m. Later this week, the justices are expected to deliver opinions in the term’s most highly anticipated cases, on affirmative action, student loans, LGBT rights, and the “independent state legislature theory.”

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