Evangelical leaders bemoan that so many of their fellow churchgoers are backing Donald Trump in the Republican primaries. These leaders have taken some solace in the results from surveys that find Trump receives more support from born-again Christians who don’t attend church very often.
A close look at the election returns suggests that Trump is, indeed, doing better in the Bible Belt. Better put: he is doing well in the Bible Belts (plural). Trump did well across the traditional Bible Belt. Outside the South, Trump did well in the many mini-Bible belts in which evangelicals dominate the local religious market.
Ryan Burge crunched the data on Trump’s share of the vote with level of evangelical adherents in each county. The results can’t tell us whether or not evangelicals voted for Trump (here’s why not), but it can tell us whether Trump does better in regions where evangelicals happen to live.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much of a relationship between evangelicals in a county and Trump’s vote share. Taking all of the county results nationally, Trump does just about as well in counties with many evangelicals as he does in ones with few evangelicals.
The reason for this pattern is that there are regional patterns.
Trump did well across the southern states’ primaries, regardless of how many more evangelicals there were. In fact, Trump may have done slightly better in areas with relatively fewer evangelicals.
The key term here is “relatively.” The moniker of “Bible Belt” has stuck because of the influence of evangelical religion across much of this region. Counties with relatively fewer evangelicals still have many who identify as born-again Christians.
There is a second reason for this pattern: race. The measure of evangelical adherents does not include many black evangelicals. As a result, some of the counties that have fewer “evangelicals” are ones with higher black populations. White Republicans in these counties may have voted for Trump at higher rates even though they had a lower (white) evangelical population.
The relationship between evangelicals and Trump support changes dramatically outside the southern states. Trump has done much better in counties with more evangelicals. These counties form mini-Bible belts in which evangelicals have a greater share of the religion market.
For evangelical leaders who can’t stand Trump, these results are a mixed bag. Nationally, the evangelical share of county is unrelated to Trump’s vote share. But take out the Bible Belt, and in each region, there are mini-Bible belts in which Trump has done very well.
Ryan Burge @ryanburge researches religion and politics. He is currently studying the politics of the emerging church movement.