Allen Whitt considers himself a true “movement conservative” and often leads political battles in his state, championing social issues and conservative values. But in West Virginia’s presidential primary Tuesday, Whitt, president of the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, cast his ballot for a candidate no longer running, and he’s not yet sure whether he’ll vote at all in the November general election.
While Trump is now the only Republican left running for president, socially conservative white evangelical voters like Whitt are divided on how to handle their party’s presumptive nominee. Throughout the primary season, Trump has gotten support from rank-and-file evangelical voters, but many of the country’s prominent evangelicals and those who are the most devout see Trump as antithetical to everything they stand for. As they threaten to withhold support from Trump, the evangelical movement, which is typically a crucial voting bloc for Republicans, is weighing a choice between abandoning their party or their strong religious beliefs on social issues.
Primary contests in West Virginia and Nebraska on Tuesday proved the first test for how these voters might act with Trump as their presumptive nominee. While the New York real estate magnate easily won both states, both Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich still had their names on the ballots, and each received portions of the vote, particularly in Nebraska.
Whitt said his vote for Cruz in West Virginia on Tuesday wasn’t just symbolic but rather aimed at electing delegates who would share his values going into the Republican National Convention this summer.
“We set out yesterday telling everybody to support Ted Cruz. For those of us that are constitutionalists, which is why you would support Cruz, we’re very concerned about Donald Trump’s positions,” Whitt said Tuesday, citing Trump’s refusal to completely disavow Planned Parenthood and his openness to allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice as prime examples of the candidate’s liberal values.
Among white evangelical Protestants, Cruz won 10 percent support against Trump's 77 percent in West Virginia, and in Nebraska, Cruz got the vote of 26 percent of white evangelicals as opposed to Trump's 57 percent. In both states, a majority of the electorate identified as born-again or evangelical Christian, and a majority or plurality were white evangelicals. Nebraska and West Virginia are both fairly religious states — nearly 19 percent of people in Nebraska are evangelical Protestants, according to data from Pew Research Center, and about 30 percent are evangelical Protestants in West Virginia.
“Support for Trump in West Virginia is very strong, largely because of economic reasons, even though it’s a very religious state,” said Erin Cassese, an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University. “There’s a lot of opposition toward the federal government, coupled with really, really negative economic indicators. Evangelical support for Trump in West Virginia is still going to be high. But that kind of confluence of poverty, low levels of educational attainment and a high white population is not necessarily present elsewhere.”
When looking at Cruz's remaining support among evangelicals, Tuesday's results echo what happened in Indiana’s Republican primary last week. While Trump won the white evangelical vote there, just as he did with most demographics, exit polls showed him leading Cruz among those voters by just 4 percentage points, which was a much narrower lead than among other groups. Among Republican primary voters who said they attend religious services once a week, the race was similarly close, and Cruz actually dominated among those who attend religious services more than once a week, capturing 61 percent of those voters, compared with 33 percent who went for Trump. The outcomes in Indiana clearly weren’t enough to keep Cruz in the race, but they do show evangelical voters expressing a reticence similar to that of their leaders.
A Southern Baptist, Cruz was a natural fit for evangelicals with his fiery far-right conservatism and frequent speeches about his faith on the campaign trail. The Texas senator opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest and believes same-sex marriage and transgender rights are causing a “time of crisis” in America. In contrast, Trump’s positions on abortion and same-sex marriage are variously muddled and have changed over time, so that even though he says he is now “pro-life” and against same-sex marriage, many conservatives don’t trust these are Trump’s true beliefs. The New York billionaire identifies as a Presbyterian, but his tendency to stumble over Scripture and talk about money, deals and sex has added to the perception among some that he is not a real Christian.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is predominantly rejected by conservative evangelicals as well, as she vigorously supports women's access to safe, legal abortions and celebrates same-sex marriage and the gay community. Clinton has talked about her Methodist faith while on the campaign trail and has begun reaching out to Republicans who are turned off by Trump, but few evangelicals expect these overtures to work.
Over the past week, many prominent Republicans have said they are not ready to support Trump, and a number have stated they will not vote for either Trump or Clinton in 2016, effectively sitting out the election. Whitt said the Family Policy Council of West Virginia and the many other groups like it in states around the country are considering similar stances.
“Everyone has basically agreed to right now bite our tongues, not make any declarations about whether we’ll stick with the Never Trump hashtag or if a deal can be cut so that a socially conservative knight can be brought in as a VP candidate,” Whitt said.
Bob Vander Plaats, who served as Cruz’s national co-chairman and is a leader in the evangelical movement, told Politico this week Trump needs to prove he’s committed to the conservative cause and that a vice presidential pick could be an important signal. But it’s unclear who Trump could choose as his running mate who would convince evangelical voters to take him seriously. Many Republicans lawmakers have already said they are not interested, and Trump’s combative style has left him with few friends among his former rivals.
Even if Trump could convince someone as conservative as Cruz to join him on the GOP ticket, evangelical voters might not believe Trump would listen to his running mate or stick to any promises he made. Trump has changed policy positions many times over the course of the 2016 primary season, and Republicans — including Cruz — have often accused him of not being a true conservative.
.@drmoore Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2016
White evangelical voters made up 54 percent of the electorate in Indiana, and on Tuesday they constituted 44 percent in Nebraska and 66 percent in West Virginia. In general elections, evangelicals hold sway as well. In the 2008 and 2012 general elections, exit polling showed evangelicals made up 23 percent of all voters, and in 2004 they made up 21 percent. In all of those elections, evangelicals skewed heavily Republican. So if a significant number of evangelicals do decide to sit out the general election, it could be bad news for Trump — and the GOP.
There is precedent for this kind of talk. Though evangelicals have been a strong and enthusiastic group for Republicans since their emergence as a significant voting bloc in the 1970s, the 2012 primary raised some concerns when Mitt Romney, a Mormon, became the GOP nominee.
Evangelicals are not at all comfortable with Mormonism, said Greg Smith, deputy director of the religion research team at Pew Research. Smith said he sees a strong parallel between the way evangelical voters discussed Romney during that presidential primary and the way they’ve worried about Trump this year.
“When we were in the run-up to the 2012 election, during the primary we could see in our data that there were lots of people in the Republican Party, and perhaps among evangelicals in the Republican Party, who had reservations about Romney and about his Mormonism,” Smith said. “But if it came down to Romney, a Mormon, and Obama, a Democrat, the choice was going to be clear for evangelicals. They showed up for Romney as strongly as for [George W.] Bush in 2004 and perhaps even more strongly than [Sen. John] McCain in 2008.”
Trump’s liberal values and purported sexual dalliances are very different than Romney’s faith. But whether evangelical Republicans stay home or ultimately hold their noses and line up behind Trump, the 2016 election is likely to have more far-reaching effects than that of 2012.
“The religious right is to the Republican Party what labor unions once were to the Democratic Party: the most reliable and energetic of coalitions,” said Randall Balmer, a leading scholar in the history of American religion and a professor of religion at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “The Republican Party has become less interested in religious voters, beginning with the rise of the Tea Party … and that has led to this.”
Balmer added that while some evangelical voters might sit out the election, he sees a larger impact on how evangelicals will engage with the Republican Party going forward. Conservatives have simply become more interested in fiscal issues instead of voting only according to a candidate's views on abortion and gay marriage rights. The fact that Trump has the support of any number of evangelicals is “a measure of how thoroughly their politicization with the rise of the religious right in the 1970s has produced a mutant form of evangelicalism,” he said.
Whitt, of the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, put the situation more bluntly: “Donald Trump could be the friendly fire that rolls a grenade into the tent of the Republican Party and blows it up forever.”