White Evangelical Support Through the Pandemic, and Going Forward

White Evangelical Support Through the Pandemic, and Going Forward May 24, 2020

The coronavirus has caused all sorts of changes in behaviour over its course, but one demographic that is always interesting to look at is the support white evangelicals have for Trump. This is because Trump, if he had been a Democrat, would have been absolutely eviscerated for his moral behaviour by evangelicals. But cognitive dissonance runs high.

Pew Research Center has been useful in understanding the effects on the public that the virus has had. On March 19th, they released the piece “Most white evangelicals satisfied with Trump’s initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak“, which does what it says on the tin.

The survey was conducted March 10 to 16, after the U.S. recorded its first coronavirus death but before Trump proposed sending $500 billion to taxpayers to soften the economic blow. On March 13, Trump declared a national state of emergency.

Majorities of white Protestants, white Catholics are at least somewhat confident in Trump's coronavirus response, unlike those in other religious groupsAround three-quarters of white evangelicals (77%) say they are at least somewhat confident that Trump is doing a good job responding to the outbreak, including roughly half who say they are very confident. Majorities of white evangelicals say Trump has assessed the risks of the situation correctly (64%) and that the crisis has been blown out of proportion by the media (76%), while just a quarter (24%) say Trump hasn’t taken risks tied to the coronavirus seriously enough. By comparison, about half of Americans overall (52%) say Trump has underplayed the risks, including majorities who say this among the religiously unaffiliated (64%), black Protestants (67%) and Jews (73%).

Other white Christians also are fairly confident about the president’s handling of the outbreak – though they are not as united in their support as white evangelicals are. …

There’s somewhat more consensus across religious groups that journalists haven’t assessed the risks of the coronavirus outbreak correctly. A majority of U.S. adults overall say the news media exaggerated the risks posed by COVID-19, including 67% of white Protestants who are not evangelical, 63% of white Catholics and 60% of the religiously unaffiliated. White evangelical Protestants (76%) are the most likely to think the media has made a bigger deal of the coronavirus crisis than is warranted. (To explore how the news habits and attitudes of Americans – including those from a variety of religious groups – relate to what they hear, perceive and know about the 2020 U.S. presidential election, visit the interactive tool provided by the Center’s Election News Pathways project.)

While white evangelicals are confident in the president’s ability to handle the crisis and skeptical that the risks it poses are as bad as the media suggests, they share the view of those in other religious groups that the situation poses a major threat to the U.S. economy. About two-thirds of white evangelicals (64%) say this.

But white evangelicals are less likely than most other groups to say COVID-19 poses a major threat to the health of the U.S. population or to day-to-day life in their local communities. Only about a third of white evangelical Protestants (32%) say the virus poses a major threat to the health of the U.S. public, compared with about half of Catholics (53%), Jews (51%) and religious “nones” (48%) who say this. And only around a quarter of white evangelicals (26%) see a major danger to day-to-day life in their community, on par with white Protestants who are not evangelical (27%) and white Catholics (31%), but lower than other religiously affiliated groups analyzed here.

A lot can change in two months, I guess. Two months later, they produced the piece: “White evangelicals among groups with slipping confidence in Trump’s handling of COVID-19“. White evangelicals are the group who most support Trump, so they are a useful barometer for measuring his popularity and chances of success going into a presidential election.

No other religious group comes close to evaluating the president so positively. Even so, the share of white evangelicals who give Trump positive marks for his handling of the crisis is 6 percentage points lower today than when the question was last asked in a survey conducted March 19 to 24.

White evangelical Protestants are a strongly Republican constituency, and their declining confidence in the president mirrors a slight decrease among Republicans overall. Today, 77% of those who identify with or lean toward the Republican Party say the president is doing an excellent or good job handling the COVID-19 outbreak, down from 83% who said this in the March survey.

Catholics, who on balance gave Trump positive ratings for his handling of the pandemic in March, now mostly rate his response negatively, with 19% saying Trump has done an “only fair” job and 37% describing his performance as “poor.” Seven-in-ten Hispanic Catholics now have a negative assessment of Trump’s response, compared with 57% in March, while the share of white Catholics who give Trump negative marks has increased to 45%, from 38% in March. (However, on balance, white Catholics still view Trump’s response to the virus positively.)

Declining majority of white evangelicals have positive view of public health officials’ COVID-19 responseIn addition to growing doubts about the president’s handling of the crisis, white evangelicals and members of many other Christian groups also show signs of wavering confidence in public health officials such as those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the most recent survey, 71% of white evangelical Protestants say they think public health officials are doing an excellent or good job handling the outbreak, down 16 percentage points from 87% who said this in March.

This aligns with the fact that Republicans are less likely than Democrats to approve of health officials’ handling of the crisis: Currently, 68% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say public health officials such as those at the CDC have done an excellent or good job in dealing with the outbreak, down from 84% in the March survey. Democrats’ views on public health officials remain stable, with roughly three-quarters expressing a positive opinion.

The other point of note concerned whether restrictions were being lifted too quickly:

White evangelicals are more inclined than other religious groups to say their bigger concern is that restrictions will not be lifted quickly enough – as opposed to lifted too quickly – and that there should be fewer restrictions in their local area than are currently in place. Still, around half of white evangelicals (51%) say their bigger concern is that restrictions will be lifted too quickly. And nearly six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants say that the restrictions in their area should either remain as they are now (43%) or be increased (15%).

So although the figures didn’t represent a massive shift away from Trump, the white evangelical support shifting downwards is definitely statistically significant, especially given that a new model predicts a landslide loss for Trump, saying he will get only 35% of the vote:

The model has predicted the winner of the popular vote in 16 of the past 18 elections and is a complete reversal of what the model was predicting before the coronavirus outbreak hit the US.

Before the public health crisis, Oxford Economics predicted that Mr Trump would win about 55 per cent of the vote, CNN reported.

“It would take nothing short of an economic miracle for pocketbooks to favour Trump,” Oxford Economics wrote in the report, according to the broadcaster.

It added that the economy will be a “nearly insurmountable obstacle for Trump come November”.

The forecaster said that the downturn has emerged in light of the poor economic backdrop the country now faces, and the model assumes that this would still be the case by the time of the election.

“The economy would still be in a worse state than at the depth of the Great Depression,” Oxford Economics said.

The caveat would be whether people are willing to forgive him due to the virus being an exogenous issue, outside of his realm of control, such that the economic situation was inevitable. That said, as I have written before, there is plenty of argument to be had that he is at least largely responsible.

On the Confidence Interval podcast from FiveThirtyEight, they make the case that if Trump loses 202o, he’ll be the 2024 GOP nominee. Gah.

On the flipside for liberals, there is good reason to believe that Biden will be the most liberal President in history, if elected:

But if Biden is elected in November, the left may get a presidency it likes after all — or at least one it hates less than anticipated. The coronavirus outbreak and the resulting massive surge in unemployment has moved American political discourse to the left: Ideas that would have been considered too liberal for most Democrats a few months ago are now being proposed by Republicans. And if American politics is moving left, expect Biden to do the same. Biden was often cast as a centrist or a moderate during the Democratic primaries, but those labels don’t really describe his politics that well — he doesn’t really seem to have any kind of set ideology at all.

Instead, Biden’s long record in public office suggests that he is fairly flexible on policy — shifting his positions to whatever is in the mainstream of the Democratic Party at a given moment. So if Biden wins the presidency and his fellow Democrats are still clamoring for more government spending to help the pandemic recovery, Biden is likely to be a fairly liberal president, no matter how moderate he sounded in the primaries.1

Biden has positioned himself in the centre of the Democratic Party, and that centre is shifting left, not only because of the virus but also due to the rise in progressives and the influence of Sanders and others.

This is shaping up to be a fascinating election, and one where the diminishing power of the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) will be even more closely analysed than ever. The Intercept has a worthwhile article “Inside the Influential Evangelical Group Mobilising to Reelect Trump“:

“THE COVID VIRUS has been a gift from God,” began Ken Eldred. “The kingdom of God advances through a series of glorious victories, cleverly disguised as disasters.”

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Eldred noted, millions of Americans are turning to Christ, Walmart is selling out of Bibles, and online church broadcasts have hit record numbers.

But while religiosity was growing, there have been setbacks from the disease outbreak. “Satan has been busy too,” Eldred, a major donor to evangelical and Republican causes, explained. “The virus has messed up many of our plans involving our in-person meetings with voters.”

And the rise of mail-in ballots, Eldred added, would undercut voter identification laws, which have been a pillar of GOP election strategy. “The children of the darkness put early voting into this CARES package,” he grumbled, a reference to the $400 million for election assistance programs to states included in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

But:

And, perhaps most importantly, it plans to use data mining to identify millions of new voters and target them with cheap ads on Facebook. The pandemic, speakers noted on the call, means that they must work overtime to compensate for the effects of mail-in voting.

The unprecedented campaign would mobilize what they call “dormant evangelical and conservative Catholic voters,” with a focus on appealing to religious affiliation as a way to compensate for Trump’s relative lack of support among nonwhite voters. They expect to focus on reducing Democratic support among African Americans and older, religiously active Latino voters in particular, as they tend to hold far more culturally conservative, devout religious views than white liberals.

UIP, though not a well known group, has emerged in recent years as the essential conduit connecting the religious right to the Trump administration.

“While few Americans know about United in Purpose,” noted Katherine Stewart, the author of “The Power Worshippers,” a new book on the Christian nationalist movement and its takeover of the Republican Party, “the organization has claimed to know at least something about all or most American voters.”

The group works closely with the Family Research Council, the arch-conservative family values think tank led by Tony Perkins. The board includes former Rep. Bob McEwen, R-Ohio, an active member of the religious right through his role in convening the Council for National Policy, another Christian conservative group.

Tax disclosures show that UIP received $75,000 from the Wellspring Committee, the same mysterious nonprofit that financed the television advertising campaign to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Another major donor to UIP is Maj. Gen. Vernon B. Lewis Jr., who retired from the military to found MPRI, a defense contractor sold to L-3 Communications, and another defense consulting firm called Cypress International.

In June 2016, after Trump effectively secured the nomination, UIP hosted a high-profile meeting between then-candidate Trump and about a thousand evangelical leaders. Trump reportedly used the event to promise an array of social conservative agenda items, including lifting political restrictions on churches and a promise to appoint judges in line with religious right priorities.

And so on. An uncomfortable read.

In conclusion, even if present stats show a dip in support for Trump from evangelicals, this will only serve to double the efforts of such influencers as UIP and others. And you can bet your bottom dollar big data will play its part.


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