Reasons why DeSantis and Haley are having such a hard time winning over evangelicals who support Trump

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Donald Trump’s stunning Iowa caucuses win Monday showed that his 2016 GOP presidential nomination secret weapon—blue-collar evangelical Christian support—is still working for him in 2024.

The Christian education gap in Iowa remained large on Monday. Trump performed better among evangelicals with and without college degrees than in 2016. According to the CNN entrance survey, he divided college-educated evangelicals evenly with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, each winning little less than two-fifths. The entrance poll revealed that two-thirds of evangelicals without college degrees supported Trump. Blue-collar evangelicals favored Trump over DeSantis by over three-to-one, despite the governor’s backing from local social conservative groups.

The biggest surprise of Trump’s 2016 nomination was how many white evangelical Christians supported a thrice-married casino-owning New Yorker with liberal abortion views. Trump broke through among evangelical Christians by winning over those without college degrees, who supported him more than those with degrees. At a campaign rally at The Grass Wagon in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis (L) answers a question from an audience member on January 13, 2024.

DeSantis is fighting for his political survival on Iowa’s frigid campaign path.
The former president is performing better than in 2016 in almost every major demographic category across the party. Blue-collar evangelicals could again protect Trump in early states like Iowa, where voters are more engaged and the results will decide if his remaining rivals can really challenge him for the nomination.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016, is counting on Iowa’s many evangelical Christian conservatives. DeSantis, like Cruz, has taken the far right position on almost every cultural issue in the race and convinced evangelicals that Trump won’t deliver on their priorities, such as banning abortion and restricting transgender youth’s access to school sports and gender-affirming care. Desantis’ campaign stated late Friday night that 150 “faith leaders” in Iowa had endorsed him, including many of the state’s most famous social conservatives.

Trump has given contradictory signals on abortion, sometimes declining to say he would support a national ban and other times saying he would try to negotiate a legislative limit that would satisfy abortion opponents. Despite his backing, DeSantis is finding it harder to run against Trump on social issues than Cruz did eight years ago.

DeSantis is “saying what he would do, but people every day, even now, see Trump actually fighting on all these things,” said Gary Bauer, a longtime social conservative activist and 2000 GOP presidential candidate who serves on Trump’s faith advisory board. During his four years as president, even though some things didn’t get done, he was always trying.

The penultimate pre-caucus Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa survey issued Saturday night highlighted DeSantis’ struggle. In addition to his substantial advantage, the survey showed Trump receiving 51% support from Iowa evangelicals, up from 2016. Only 22% of those voters supported DeSantis. That’s why DeSantis finished third in the survey behind former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has focused less on Iowa.

Reasons why DeSantis and Haley are having such a hard time winning over evangelicals who support Trump
Reasons why DeSantis and Haley are having such a hard time winning over evangelicals who support Trump
Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Trump.

Iowa’s most critical poll set GOP caucus expectations. Like other recent polls, the Iowa poll did not report evangelical GOP voter education gaps. As he did when he originally secured the nomination, multiple media and GOP polls that gave me comprehensive findings last year found Trump performing much better among evangelicals without degrees than those with advanced degrees.

Trump’s 2016 victory among blue-collar evangelicals was crucial to reorienting GOP politics. In the two presidential elections before Trump, evangelical Christians and non-Christians were the main Republican divide. Iowa swiftly shaped each race. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 won the caucuses with evangelical Christian conservative backing. That first performance made them the evangelical champion, and they performed well among evangelical voters throughout the primary.

After becoming the Christian favorite, Huckabee and Santorum failed to get support outside that constituency. In 2008 and 2012, GOP nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney defeated them with similar alliances. According to cumulative exit poll estimates by Gary Langer of ABC News, McCain and Romney won just about one-third of evangelical Christians but about half of GOP non-evangelicals.

Trump and Cruz set off on similar paths in 2016. In 2016, over two-thirds of caucus attendees were evangelical or “born again” Christians, and Cruz beat Trump by double-digits, according to an Edison Research entrance poll for a consortium of media organizations. Like a superhero movie timeline variant, the 2016 race quickly changed course. Cruz battled with non-evangelical voters like Santorum and Huckabee. Cruz struggled to replicate Trump’s evangelical performance in crucial states due to Trump’s educational axis.
Reasons why DeSantis and Haley are having such a hard time winning over evangelicals who support Trump

Explaining Republican presidential nomination and delegates

In 2016, exit polls in those states showed that Trump rarely exceeded one-third of evangelicals with at least a four-year college degree, allowing Cruz to beat him or run even. Exit surveys showed that Trump won 45% or more evangelicals without a four-year college degree in Nevada, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Michigan, Mississippi, and North Carolina, defeating Cruz.

South Carolina, which has decided every GOP primary campaign since 1980 (save 2012), was most affected by this dynamic. Cruz saw South Carolina as crucial to prevent Trump because evangelicals vote so heavily there. Trump won South Carolina by 44% of evangelicals without degrees, double his proportion among evangelicals with degrees. Trump’s South Carolina triumph ended Cruz’s challenge.

To stay in Iowa after Monday, DeSantis may need to break Trump’s evangelical grasp this year. According to the Florida governor, Iowa evangelicals can no longer trust Trump to embrace conservative positions on social issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights, bolstered by his wide range of evangelical followers. “There are many factors that make you wonder, ‘What will we get if Trump wins?The Family Leader president and CEO Bob Vander Plaats endorsed DeSantis.

Despite Vander Plaats’ admission, the constant conflict between Trump and Democrats and the former president’s repeated political indictments have made it hard to convince conservatives he has abandoned them. Vander Plaats said, “I think he’ll do very well” if DeSantis can win evangelicals in Iowa on Monday. Haley isn’t betting as heavily on Christian votes in Iowa as DeSantis. She hopes to maximize her vote in urban and suburban areas like Rubio in the 2016 caucus. Haley doesn’t need evangelical votes in New Hampshire, where they make up barely 25% of the vote, and she’s largely counting on well-educated suburban voters.

But South Carolina may make or break DeSantis if he defies the polls in Iowa, or Haley if she emerges as Trump’s most likely opponent after the first two states. Over 60% of South Carolina voters in the past three GOP presidential primaries have been evangelical Christians, and evangelicals without college degrees have outnumbered those with degrees.

Reasons why DeSantis and Haley are having such a hard time winning over evangelicals who support Trump

Trump’s hold on evangelicals without college degrees seems insurmountable for DeSantis or Haley, even in the best-case scenario. They cannot circumvent it. If they want to challenge Trump for the nomination, they must at least partially dislodge it. Robert P. Jones, founder and president of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of several books on conservative Christians, says Trump has exacerbated the evangelical education gap by focusing more political debates on US identity issues like immigration and race relations.

“Trump has really brought to the fore this overt appeal to an ethno-religious identity as the core of what it means to be an American and protecting that as the core of being a Republican, and that I think has split [the evangelical community] more sharply along education lines,” Jones said. This year’s PRRI American Values Survey, which focuses on cultural concerns, shows a growing divide. CNN has previously unpublished 2023 survey findings showing that White evangelical Christians with and without college degrees tilt conservative on the Trump-era GOP’s major statements regarding cultural and demographic change. Two-thirds of evangelicals without degrees are more responsive to such messages than one-third with degrees on many of those concerns.

More than two-thirds of evangelicals without degrees believed that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background,” but less than half of those with advanced degrees did. College-educated evangelicals agreed more than non-graduates that years of slavery and discrimination gave Whites unfair economic advantages.

Additionally, evangelicals without degrees were more receptive to suggestions that America’s issues necessitated a break from small-d democratic norms. Over three-quarters of evangelical Christians with degrees disagreed that “we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.” Nearly half of evangelicals without degrees agreed. Perhaps most importantly, almost three-fifths of evangelicals without degrees believed that “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world” while nearly three-fifths of those with degrees disagreed.

Reasons why DeSantis and Haley are having such a hard time winning over evangelicals who support Trump

Most evangelicals, regardless of degree, denied that Trump breached the law or threatened American democracy in 2020. However, 66% of evangelicals without degrees supported Trump, compared to 49% of those with degrees.

The New York Times recently reported on survey data showing that Trump’s support was highest among evangelicals who identify largely on cultural rather than theological grounds and do not attend church. Jones said the PRRI found that evangelicals’ openness to Trump and his main themes is more influenced by education than religious practice. Jones said PRRI’s survey shows that White evangelicals’ weekly church attendance has fallen very modestly between 2013 and 2023. He said the 2023 survey found no big disparities in evangelicals’ views on Trump or most social issues between those who attend services and those who don’t.

According to Jones and The New York Times, Trump’s appeal to evangelicals is less his policy orthodoxy on a lengthy number of traditional social issues than his embodiment of cultural conservative principles. Instead, both think he is prospering because many in that community perceive him as a fighter against Democrats, the federal government, and the media that they see as eroding “traditional values.”

Jones called hardline evangelical Christians’ authoritarianism a ‘desperate times’ political ethic. He said that conservative evangelicals now prefer an ends-justifies-the-means ethic, while political leaders’ personal beliefs were all they could talk about in the early 2000s. “If the stakes are high enough, the means cease to matter, which is where evangelicals have found themselves – especially if you believe God intended for us to be a Christian nation.”

Bauer, a 2000 GOP presidential candidate, doesn’t think evangelicals must back Trump or give up their convictions. But he mostly agrees with Jones on what has glued those voters to Trump. According to Bauer, there is a bond between him and his voters, similar to when a person joins a losing struggle along with them. “They remember.” Monday’s Iowa results will show how strong that link is three years after Trump’s violent, chaotic exit.

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