Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is floundering. In the wake of less than impressive debate performances, accusations of financial mismanagement and tapes of Trump advocating sexual harassment and assault, support for the GOP nominee has decreased significantly. In the media, two distinct narratives have emerged. Many liberal news sites such as Salon, Slate and The Daily Beast have published stories suggesting Trump maintains high support from Christian leaders, particularly southern Evangelicals. In contrast, many Christian news sites have published stories arguing the opposite. Christianity Today and the magazine World, two prominent Evangelical publications, have published editorials condemning the GOP nominee in particularly strong language.
Polls show that Trump is substantially behind with Christian groups in comparison with most Republican candidates. Donald Trump currently has around 44 percent of the national vote, compared to 48 percent in the general election for Mitt Romney. This suggests that Donald Trump should be, all other things being equal, about four percent behind where Romney ended up among different religious denominations.
Yet the data suggest a much greater slide: 80 percent of white Evangelical protestants voted for Mitt Romney, but Trump’s polls indicate only 65 percent will support him. White Catholics favored Romney by a historic 3:2 ratio at 59 percent, but this support has fallen 17 points to only 42 percent (Trump’s support among Latino Catholic voters is unchanged). No polling is out for Mormons, another prominent Christian bloc, but polls in Utah, a state that is nearly homogeneously Mormon, Romney captured over 72 percent of the vote. Trump’s polling averages are less than half of that, around 30 percent.
This collapse of Christian support is especially surprising given how little outreach Clinton has done. She led the charge on changing the Democratic platform’s stance on taxpayer-funded abortion, promised to nominate pro-choice Supreme Court justices, and her staff has even called for active insurrection within religious establishments, as was revealed in the hacked emails from her server.
Meanwhile, Trump has poured millions into securing Christian endorsements and “values voters” panels, only to fall further behind among the faithful. The logical explanation is of course Trump himself. Any man who brags of sexual assault, has gone through two divorces and encouraged his former mistress to get an abortion will have a hard time securing “values voters.” But a broader question remains: How can any Republican candidate without a solid lock on white, Christian, “moral majority” voters have even an outside chance at the presidency?
I see two possible outcomes. The first possibility is that Trump may be losing multiple demographics by catastrophic amounts, but will win simply because of turnout. Trump supporters are registering in droves, to levels that have caught many GOP insiders by surprise. If they turn out in droves, coupled with Trump’s lock on elderly white people (the most reliable voting demographic), then poor polling among literally every other group will do little to stop him. Trump supporters are visibly supportive of their candidate, while many Trump opponents are less than thrilled about Clinton. The intensity mismatch could result in a very unexpected election.
Alternatively, Trump is recreating the Republican party by appealing to the non-religious elements of the GOP. Traditional religious-right bastions like Georgia, Texas and even Mississippi are showing competitive polling, while the “mountain west” states of Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming are more deeply red than ever. These states tend to have lower church attendance and fewer religious voters. Nevada, a state where prostitution and gambling are state institutions, has Trump winning in several polls despite the state’s growing Latino population. In addition, Trump has considerable support among uneducated whites in deep blue states, such as Massachusetts, Vermont and Oregon, where church attendance by all groups is low. These states may be less blue than in other years, although I certainly doubt any of them will actually end up in Trump’s column.
While we may have a popular conception that links low-education environments with religious identification, 21 percent of Americans with a high school degree or less identify as irreligious, compared with 24 percent of Americans with post-graduate education, which is hardly a sizable difference. Trump also polls surprisingly well with Latino voters. Most polls show him with higher support among Latinos than Romney, particularly those who do not identify as Catholic. One poll in the state of New York found that 40 percent of the state’s Latino population was planning to vote for Trump.
These newfound sources of support give Trump a place to stand, even without Christian support. Such trends also point to a dangerous path for the Republican party. The goals of various Republican religious factions included global stability, increased immigration and racial tolerance. With this “moral” spirit of the GOP gone, we may find an increasingly ethnocentric and anti-democratic party in its wake.