Throughout the 2016 Republican nominating contest and general election campaign, a vocal subset of conservative white evangelicals has, for the first time since at least 1980, refused to support a Republican presidential candidate.
Elsewhere over the past few months, I have explained why this could be politically consequential. But in general, I find that the people who are excited by this development tend to overstate its impact.
- Even if some conservative evangelicals balk at Trump, they are still white conservatives. The GOP is more their party than the Democrats have been or will be for decades.
- They are still going to support House and Senate Republicans, almost all of whom endorse Trump and will lead Trump’s majority coalition in Congress (if he is elected). Is a vote for a Republican candidate for Congress a vote for or against Trump’s agenda? To my knowledge, #NeverTrump evangelicals have not thought seriously about this question.
- Conservative evangelicals have been told for 35 years that voting Republican is practically a Christian duty. Even if they are inclined to listen to #NeverTrump elites (which is debatable), they may not be able to push an emergency shut-off valve on millions of voters’ lifetimes of GOP loyalty.
- Hillary Clinton is going to win the 2016 election regardless of what #NeverTrump evangelicals do. Her election does not depend on a million or so evangelicals staying home. She has not reached out to conservative evangelicals at all (though I wish she would). Politicians can basically ignore them, and they will continue voting Republican in sizeable numbers.
- When this election is all over, erstwhile #NeverTrump evangelicals will swiftly and faithfully return to the GOP fold. It’s entirely plausible that after a couple years of Hillary Clinton’s legislative accomplishments, executive actions, and judicial appointments, white evangelicals will be fighting to elect Republicans in 2018 and 2020 as though Donald Trump never happened.
Sure, a subset of conservative evangelicals will withhold their votes from Trump this year. But most of them will still advocate for the election of Trump-supporting Republicans in the House and Senate. And by withholding their votes from Hillary Clinton, their Trump opposition is a half measure: It will not result in the kind of margins needed to claim that they handed the White House to Mrs. Clinton — or denied it to Donald Trump.