When Monday’s decision came down, Trump already had taken steps to solidify his backing from evangelicals, meeting with a group of 1,000 conservative Christian leaders in New York last Tuesday. While hardly unanimous, many of these leaders gave Trump high marks for how he answered questions they submitted, particularly about Supreme Court nominations. Pledging to appoint “great Supreme Court justices,” Trump promised the group all his nominees would be “pro-life.”
After stumbling around the issue for much of his candidacy, Trump clearly had been briefed on how religious conservatives see the judicial nomination stakes. Last year, for example, he enraged conservatives by suggesting that his sister, a federal court judge who has ruled a late-term abortion ban unconstitutional, would make a “phenomenal” Supreme Court justice. At the evangelical meeting last week, Trump praised the late Justice Antonin Scalia, suggesting that his nominees would share the conservative icon’s judicial philosophy. Trump presented himself as the only option to protect conservative evangelicals’ interests, given what is known about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s views. “If Hillary gets in,” he warned, “we know what she’s going to be putting in there.”
This weekend’s Washington Post/ABC News poll gives Trump even more reason to pander to this essential Republican constituency. Nationwide, the poll found, Trump is lagging behind Clinton by double digits. Yet a deeper dive into that data finds that white evangelicals are his most enthusiastic supporters — although they may need more assurances to seal the deal.
Any Republican nominee’s evangelical support is not surprising, given that white evangelicals are one of the GOP’s most reliable voting blocs. According to exit polling data analyzed by the Pew Research Center, in 2004, George W. Bush captured 79 percent of the white evangelical vote in winning his reelection bid. In 2008, John McCain earned 73 percent, and in 2012, Mitt Romney matched Bush’s 2004 showing.
In this cycle, though, while Trump has made much of how much evangelicals “love me,” many evangelicals including pastors, pundits, and activists, have been publicly outspoken about being in the #NeverTrump camp, even after he became the presumptive nominee.
Trump has not yet attained Bush or Romney levels of evangelical support, but he may have a chance to draw close to it. According to the Post/ABC News poll, 68 percent of registered voters who are white evangelicals favor Trump over Clinton, making them his most supportive demographic. But that number reflects an 8-point drop since May—giving Trump even more reason to use the Supreme Court decision to reinvigorate his standing with this constituency.
Compared to other demographics, white evangelicals seem to trust Trump more, making them ripe for persuasion. While just 36 percent of all respondents told pollsters that Trump is “standing up for” their beliefs, 63 percent of white evangelicals said Trump is — far more than white non-evangelical Protestants (48 percent), white Catholics (40 percent), and voters of no religion (27 percent).
Monday’s decision could just give Trump the fodder he needs to reinvent himself as a savior to the pro-life movement and win over skeptical evangelicals.
Religious right advocacy groups swiftly condemned the ruling and drew attention to the judicial nominations issue. Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, pledged to “fight” for nominees “who respect the law and the Constitution instead of liberals wanting to advance an agenda.” Tim Head, executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, called the decision “another example of the urgency to elect a pro-life President in November who will be responsible for filling the enormous vacancy left by Justice Scalia’s passing and possibly fill other seats on the Court.” (The outcome of Monday’s 5-3 decision, though, would not have been altered by filling the Scalia vacancy with a like-minded justice, although which seats might become vacant over the next president’s term is of course unknown.)
#NeverTrump evangelicals, who see Trump as a charlatan, now have even more to worry about.
Even though they agree with their brethren on the abortion question, they are distraught by their willingness to see Trump as the answer. Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter and columnist, and a leading voice of the evangelical #NeverTrump camp, wrote after last week’s meeting that no one “asked Trump to explain the moral theory that has guided his gyrations on the abortion issue.” The entire affair, Gerson added, “was a sad parody of Christian political involvement, summarizing all the faults and failures of the religious right.”
After months of hand-wringing, given the current dynamics, the question now isn’t whether the #NeverTrump evangelical camp can prevail. Instead, the question will likely be how large (or small) that dissident group will be.
Sarah Posner is a writer who focuses on the intersection of faith and politics. She is the author of “God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.”