WASHINGTON (RNS) — As the Republican National Convention kicks off on Monday (Aug. 24), political observers are sure to analyze the various strategies employed by party officials to persuade voters to back their presidential candidate come November.
But in light of recent polls showing possible fluctuations in support among Trump’s religious base — and an atypically religion-heavy Democratic National Convention seemingly aimed at Christian voters who might be on the fence — experts may be asking another question this week: What will Trump do to retain or bolster support among the conservative Christians that make up his base?
If Trump loses his grip on conservative Christians, “that, to me, is the canary in the coal mine of a lot worse things downstream" for Trump, said Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University.
Unlike past election cycles when Trump invoked Christian nationalism and made appeals to religious liberty as a way to secure white evangelical and white Catholic votes, the main issue impacting many religious voters may be more medical than theological: the ongoing pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus and its economic fallout.
Burge said there are “competing narratives” in recent polls regarding Trump’s support among white evangelicals. A recent Pew Research poll reported 82% of white evangelicals saying they would back Trump this year, roughly the same percentage who voted for him in 2016.
But Burge noted the number changes when voters are presented with more options. He pointed to a recent Data for Progress tracking poll that showed that only 61.9% of white evangelicals plan to vote for Trump on Election Day, with 27.6% backing Biden, 2.3% supporting a different candidate, 1.4% who don’t plan to vote and 6.9% who are still unsure.
Unease regarding evangelical support may explain why the president tweeted criticism of the Democratic National Convention over the weekend, pointing out that some Democrats omitted the words "under God" when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in caucus meetings. Although fact-checkers noted Joe Biden and other Democrats did use "under God" during main-stage speeches and referenced God on numerous occasions, Trump tweeted about the incident at least three times, at one point making his target audience clear.
"Remember Evangelical Christians, and ALL, this is where they are coming from-it’s done," Trump tweeted.
Trump repeated the criticism during his first address to the convention on Monday afternoon.
"We will not be taking the word 'God' out of the Pledge of Allegiance," he said, sparking applause.
Questions regarding Trump’s support among white evangelicals are likely to impact how he and other Republicans appeal to the demographic during the RNC. Tony Suarez, a vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and one of several evangelicals who have advised President Trump during his first term, told Religion News Service that Trump should show “continued unwavering support for religious liberty, life, appointing conservative judges and Israel.
“That message is why Evangelicals gave him such overwhelming support four years ago,” Suarez said.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, history professor at Calvin University and author of “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,” expressed doubt that anything that occurs at the RNC will move Trump’s evangelical base one way or another.
Even so, she said observers should expect to hear “more law-and-order rhetoric that plays to conservative white evangelical fears and more talk of Christianity and ‘traditional’ values being under siege.
“We'll then see Trump once again positioning himself as the protector of Christians, and especially of white evangelical Christians,” she said.
But Du Mez acknowledged that any wavering in Trump support among white evangelicals is likely a result of the president’s “bungled coronavirus response.”
Burge said there is some statistical evidence for this shift: In the same Data for Progress poll, 68.5% of white evangelicals who don’t know anyone with COVID-19 said they planned to back Trump in November. But among those who do know someone who has contracted the disease, the percentage dropped to 60.4%.
Even if Trump’s white evangelical support remains firm this week and through the election, Burge pointed to another potential problem: white Catholics in the Rust Belt.
“White Catholics are the linchpin of Trump's coalition,” Burge said. “A lot of these people are the ones who have either become unemployed due to COVID or had to go to a hostile, dangerous work environment due to COVID. I think these people are feeling the effects of COVID more than your upperclass people are.”
That disparity could haunt Trump, Burge argued. As the effects of the pandemic persist, Trump’s traditional appeals to issues important to conservative Christians — such as religious freedom and opposition to LGBTQ advocates — may not be enough.
“When you’ve got money in your pocket and your job is secure and the stock market's going up and everyone's got a job, you can worry about secondary issues like religious freedom,” Burge said, referring to issues Republicans often highlight when courting Christian conservatives. “Cultural appeals and discussions about cancel-culture LGBTQ issues, unisex bathrooms and all that kind of stuff is great when the economy is good. But when the economy is bad, no one cares about it. They care about jobs.”