Did Evangelicals Hold Their Noses and Vote for Trump?

[Image credit: The Week.]

By Paul A. Djupe

With a Republican field chock full of aspirants with credible religious credentials, it’s fair to say that few thought evangelical attachment to Trump a likely scenario. By March, it was apparent that something unexpected was happening, but even then the storyline, backed by some data, was that it was the bad evangelicals (those less observant) who jumped to Trump. Trump, of course, steamrolled through the Republican nomination process and narrowly captured enough states in November for a “blowout,” “massive landslide.” For their part, white evangelicals were all in – fully 80% voted for Trump according to exit polls and analysis of the CCES on this blog indicated about 76% support (here).

However, elite evangelical observers have a different story. While they don’t deny the level of support, they maintain that evangelicals did not have the level of enthusiasm others often assume. At a rally in Washington State, Franklin Graham suggested to the crowd, “Which of the two will at least maybe listen to what we have to say. You’ll have to make that choice. Now you might have to hold your nose.” Noseholding was a common depiction of evangelical voters even before Summer 2016 — the following is a screen grab from a quick search of “evangelical nose hold” on twitter.

tweet_selection.jpg

It pops up among commentators (implicitly) even now:

So, how common was noseholding among voters? Were evangelicals especially likely to hold their nose and cast their vote? Fortunately, I have data on this. Anand Sokhey, Amanda Friesen, and I were in the field across the campaign, interviewing Americans about, among other things, their feelings toward their candidate. The figure below shows the distributions of feelings toward Trump among Trump-voting members of the various religious traditions in the sample. It is plain to see that evangelical feelings toward their standard bearer are statistically no different than others; religious nones who voted for Trump were slightly less warm toward their candidate, but there’s very little movement here.

Figure 1 – Evangelicals Who Voted for Trump Felt the Same Warmth Toward Him as Did Other Trump Voters

feelings toward trump by rt.png

Note: 95% confidence intervals shown.

Now to the key claim – how many evangelicals held their nose and voted for Trump? Those who held their noses would be expected to dislike their chosen candidate (a score below 50 on the feeling thermometer scale). Of course, noseholding may not be exclusive to evangelicals or to Trump, so I’ll look across the sample by religious tradition. Figure 2 shows that no group held their nose at higher or lower rates than others, though black Protestants are somewhat less likely to have held their nose and religious nones were marginally more likely to. There is also very little variation by candidate choice within religious traditions. Clinton-voting evangelicals had about the same rate of nose holding as Trumpvangelicals.

Figure 2 – Rates of Nose Holding by Religious Tradition and Major Party Vote

nose-holding-by-rt.png

Note: 95% confidence intervals shown

That noseholding was evenly spread across religious groups does not mean it was evenly spread within every group in the population. Since this noseholding claim was advanced by evangelicals, I’ll focus my attention among them. The overwhelming feeling you get from reading claims of rampant nose holding is that evangelical piety leads the faithful to be uncomfortable with Trump’s unconventional Christian displays and downright dreadful treatment of women and minorities (e.g., see the antibigotry123 tweet above). However, I doubt that’s true. There were very few conservative sources offering criticism of Trump and forthcoming research by Brian Calfano and I shows how little of this got through to evangelical voters.[1] Therefore, I suspect that noseholding is much more common among evangelicals exposed to non-evangelicals, among whom criticism would be much more free flowing. In this view, noseholding is a result of ambivalence and offers a defense to social opprobrium.

Figure 3 shows levels of evangelical noseholding by education level and the degree of church members in their political network. These rates come from models with some controls in them.[2] The evidence leans in my favor. Nose holding among evangelicals is relatively common the more they are exposed to the non-evangelical community.

Figure 3 – Nose Holding Rates are Much Higher Among Highly Educated Evangelicals and Those Without Church Member Discussion Partners

noseholding by ed and church.png

I understand why the claim of noseholding is attractive. It suggests that you and your group are better, more pure than a political candidate, that your support is temporary and subject to revocation. It is a claim of both independence and moral superiority. And, believe it or not, I would argue that those are good things to aspire to. Voters should aim to vote from a firm basis in values and should refrain from evaluating candidates from simply a shared party label. However, as political scientists (and, e.g., here) and others continue to hammer on, what I described is just not common these days given the creeping evils of negative partisanship. To the central claim: noseholding is not disproportionately common (or uncommon for that matter) among white evangelicals. What I find interesting is the degree to which pluralistic engagement is linked to more negative feelings toward your candidate, which indicates a sense of openness to information. It is no surprise that social insulation exacerbates the conditions under which negative partisanship thrives.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog. Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter


Notes

1. See the Djupe and Calfano chapter in: Djupe, Paul A. and Ryan L. Claassen. Forthcoming. The Evangelical Crackup? The Future of the Evangelical-Republican Coalition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

2. The model predicted noseholding among white evangelicals using a model containing education, gender (insignificant), age (insignificant), political tolerance (which had a faintly significant and negative effect), partisanship (insignificant), church discussion partners (negative and significant as discussed), church attendance (insignificant), and vote for Trump (significant and negative – Trumpvangelicals were 20% less likely to nosehold after controlling for other variables).

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