Support for Donald Trump among evangelical voters continues to garner numerous headlines as the business mogul moves closer to the Republican presidential nomination.
However, evangelicals in the middle part of the United States are bolting from the Trump bandwagon.
Edison Research, which conducts election exit polls for the National Election Pool of ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC and the Associated Press, quizzed voters in 13 of the 15 Republican states that have voted so far.
The only religion question asked of Republicans in every single state was whether the voter was an evangelical Christian or not.
Seven states also included a question about if the voter thought a candidate having shared religious values mattered. Republicans in Massachusetts were asked about their religious affiliation.
Trump won among evangelicals in nine of the 13 states. He won a majority of the evangelical vote in four states (New Hampshire, Nevada, Massachusetts and Vermont) where the evangelical population is small and was not a key to his victory.
In the nine states where evangelicals accounted for a majority of the Republican electorate, he won the evangelical vote in the five southern states (South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia), but lost in the four states in the middle swath of the country (Iowa, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas).
In two southern states – South Carolina and Alabama – he actually performed better with evangelical voters than with non-evangelical voters.
Arkansas, which Trump won overall, is the only state out of the 13 with exit polls where a plurality of evangelicals did not back the winner of the state.
In Iowa, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz captured 34 percent of evangelicals, followed by Trump at 22 and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at 21. In Oklahoma, Cruz won 39 percent of evangelicals, followed by Rubio at 26 and Trump with 25.
In Arkansas, Cruz captured 34 percent, followed by Trump at 31 and Rubio at 24. In Texas, Cruz took 51 percent of evangelicals, followed by Trump at 26 and Rubio at 14.
Additionally, it seems quite certain Trump lost evangelical voters in another Midwestern state.
In Minnesota, one of two states without exit polling data, Trump came in a distant third overall with just 21 percent of the vote while Rubio received 37 and Cruz 29.
Scott Lamb, a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who writes for the Washington Times, sees some important cultural differences that could explain the differences among evangelicals in the Midwest.
Lamb wrote the authorized biography of Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas Southern Baptist pastor who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and 2016.
“I think Midwest evangelicals (like those in my home state of Missouri) live in a ‘border state’ religious existence,” Lamb told EthicsDaily.com. “Go further South and you’ve got cultural reasons to be religious, the ‘It’s the right thing to do’ or ‘It’s good for business’ motivations for being churched. But as you get into border states, you’ve got less of that – not radically less mind you, but it’s definitely not the Bible Belt mentality.”
Hal Bass, professor political science at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, and author of a book on U.S. political parties, also thinks the results may show differences between the culture of the “Deep South” and the “Border South.”
“American politics has always featured regional subcultures, so any differentiation between Midwestern evangelicals and Southern evangelicals may well pertain more to the regional identity than to the evangelical one,” he told EthicsDaily.com. “The South has long been considered strongly patriotic in its sentiments. Trump’s nationalistic commitment to make America great again resonates especially well in the region.”
“Considerations of the Southern subculture have typically identified an authoritarian affinity,” he added. “It is at least arguable that some aspects of evangelicalism also feature this authoritarian affinity. To the extent that Trump projects an image of strength, he taps into prevailing sentiments that look favorably on strong authority figures and may well trump, if you will, recognition of and concerns about his background and behavior.”
Bass pointed to the African-American population as a key difference between the Deep South and the Border South, with larger African-American populations in the Deep South.
“I suspect that this racial dimension is relevant to the current question,” he said. “Trump’s nativist appeal to whites is arguably stronger in areas with larger minority populations.”
“I see him appealing to a constituency into which many, but by no means all, evangelicals fit, where over time a profound sense of alienation has developed,” Bass continued. “A large part of it is the loss of white privilege in a region and a country well on its way demographically to majority minority status. A related part of it is the recognition that both trends toward greater religious diversity and secularism challenge traditional Christian triumphalism.”
“To the extent that these sentiments are arguably stronger in the Deep South than elsewhere, where they are obviously also present, it is not all that surprising to me that Trump is performing well among evangelicals in the South and elsewhere,” he concluded.
Despite all the attention to evangelicals in exit polls and media coverage, Bass argued that the label may not be that helpful for understanding electoral decisions.
“Evangelicals are themselves a pretty pluralistic bunch, and one-size-fits-all descriptions are always going to be overstated,” he explained. “Evangelicals are not necessarily or even likely single-issue voters, so it is questionable to assume that the evangelical label is the trigger for voting behavior.”
“Evangelical identity needs to be differentiated from orthodoxy, and even from behavioral norms,” he added.
As polling data suggests, looking at church attendance rates – instead of evangelical self-identification that might be more cultural than spiritual – offers a different picture. Voters who attend church more frequently are much less likely to back Trump.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.