During his commencement speech at Liberty University on Saturday, Donald Trump praised the school’s evangelical community for its support of him in the 2016 presidential election.
“In this beautiful campus and in your smiling faces but it all began with a vision. That vision was of a world class university for evangelical Christians,” Trump said. “And I want to thank you, because boy did you come out and vote, those of you that are old enough, in other words your parents. Boy oh boy, you voted, you voted.”
For as much attention as has been paid to Trump’s base of working-class white voters in the months since his election, his fealty to evangelical voters has slipped a bit under the radar. Politico’s Tim Alberta explained why social conservatives — a group that overlaps heavily with the evangelical population — are “over the moon” with Trump’s job performance so far, from Cabinet picks to policy choices. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson described Trump as the evangelicals’ “dream president” — and that was before the White House’s expansion of an international antiabortion policy went into effect Monday.
As it turns out, Trump’s strong support of evangelicals was reciprocal, as he implied in that Liberty University speech.
Exit polling from the past four presidential elections has broken out those white voters who identify as evangelical or born-again Christians. In 2004, about 23 percent of voters claimed that identity; in every election since, the figure has been 26 percent.
While Trump therefore didn’t necessarily inspire more evangelical voters to come to the polls (with the important caveat that exit polling data among subgroups is sometimes a bit iffy), he does seem to have inspired more support than past Republicans.
In 2004, George W. Bush got 78 percent of the evangelical vote, as did Mitt Romney five years ago. In 2008, John McCain managed only 74 percent. Trump got 80.
We can look at that data another way. As a percentage of all of the support each candidate received, 42 percent of McCain’s votes came from evangelical voters. For Romney, the figure was 43 percent. For Trump? Forty-six percent.
That’s a remarkable number. Trump did better with evangelicals last year than Hillary Clinton did with one of her core constituencies: nonwhite voters. Clinton got 74 percent of the nonwhite vote, according to exit polls, and nonwhite voters made up 45 percent of her vote total.
Now, the caveat. Trump’s enthusiasm for voters at Liberty University may actually have been somewhat misplaced. Using the national precinct map created by Ryne Rohla for Decision Desk HQ, we can compare how the precinct where the university is located voted in the past three elections. Trump earned 85 percent of the vote at Liberty in 2016, topping McCain’s 81 percent nine years ago. But he came up short compared with Mitt Romney, who won over 93 percent of the vote.
The difference? While Barack Obama and Clinton got the same support at Liberty, about 4.5 percent, Trump lost more support to independent candidates Gary Johnson (on the ballot in 2012 and 2017) and Evan McMullin. In fact, McMullin — the last-ditch choice of many conservative Trump opponents — came in second in Liberty University’s precinct.
Boy, did evangelicals come out to vote for Trump, and, boy, did it pay off for them. But, boy! did Mitt Romney do well at Liberty University compared with the next Republican to run.