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Why evangelical voters are unlikely to bail on Roy Moore

U.S. Senate candidate and former Alabama chief justice Roy Moore. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

This article has been updated.

Roy Moore won the Republican nomination for the Senate seat in Alabama this year on the strength of his long-standing advocacy for hard-right conservative and evangelical values.

Twice elected chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court, he left that role both times on behalf of his religious beliefs. In 2003, he was removed from office for refusing to take a monument of the Ten Commandments out of a state building. In 2016, he was suspended for refusing to uphold the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriages.

When challenged by Luther Strange for the nomination to the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Moore never trailed.

On Thursday afternoon, The Washington Post published a story detailing allegations from four women who say they were pursued by Moore when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. One, Leigh Corfman, described how Moore had initiated sexual contact with her when she was 14 and he 18 years older.

Republicans on Capitol Hill — many of whom supported Strange in the primary, it’s important to note — quickly called for Moore to drop out of the Senate race, a move that seems unlikely. (Moore tried to get ahead of The Post’s story by denying it in advance to Breitbart.) The question then becomes whether Moore can win the general election race against Democrat Doug Jones in light of the allegations — particularly given that nearly half the state identifies as evangelical, suggesting that a moral question might dampen his support.

"I believe the women," who accused Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual misconduct, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Nov. 13. (Video: The Washington Post)

Recent history, though, suggests that he might not lose substantial evangelical support. That recent history is Donald Trump.

On Oct. 7, 2016, The Post had another scoop: Donald Trump had been recorded casually talking about sexual assault while preparing for a segment on “Access Hollywood.” When he denied having actually assaulted anyone during a presidential debate, a number of women came forward to say that he’d done to them precisely what he described in those audio recordings.

The result for Trump? He won more support from evangelical voters than any Republican since the question of religious identification began being asked.

Nearly half of Trump’s support — 46 percent — identified as white evangelical Protestant.

In the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape, PRRI released data showing that, for evangelical voters, moral rectitude had faded in importance since 2011. More than any other religious group, evangelicals said that someone who acts immorally in their personal lives can still serve morally in office.

Part of this is certainly a response to what was known about Trump. Evangelical voters supported Trump, so they were willing to say that any indiscretions were irrelevant.

But why did they support him so fervently? One factor is that Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, was fervently opposed by evangelical voters. Our Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote about that last October:

She symbolizes much that runs against their beliefs: abortion rights advocacy, feminism and, conversely, a rejection of biblical ideas of femininity and womanhood. Perhaps even more significantly, Hillary Clinton, as an outspoken and activist first lady, is inextricably tied in the minds of conservative Christians to their loss of the culture war battles beginning with Bill Clinton’s first term in 1993.

That last point, about the culture wars, is important. In June, Politico’s Tim Alberta explained why evangelicals continued to stand by Trump.

Yet for Christians who feel they are engaged in a great struggle for the identity of America — and fear that their side has been losing ground — the most important question is not whether Trump believes in their cause, but whether he can win their wars. “Jimmy Carter sat in the pew with us. But he never fought for us,” Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told me after the president’s speech. “Donald Trump fights. And he fights for us.”

Ergo: Support for Trump. In August, Pew Research reported that half of those who approve of Trump approved of his performance in office not because of his policies but because of his approach and personality: his leadership, his willingness to “speak his mind,” that he wasn’t a typical politician. It was the style that appealed to them, not what he stood for.

Which brings us to Moore. Moore’s political background is predicated on engaging in the sort of fights that evangelical voters would like to see fought.

Moore is aware of this. He tweeted this in early October:

Last week, he looped Clinton into the fight:

Update: In a tweet on Thursday evening, Moore described his opponents as “evil.”

How Trump stumbled onto the right message for evangelicals isn’t clear, but it probably stems in part from tracking conservative media. Moore, on the other hand, was steeped in it.

The allegations against Moore are decades old and, for those interested in dismissing them, dismissible as pitting his word against the women’s. It seems unlikely, then, that evangelical voters would, at this point, reject his candidacy, especially with Moore denying the charges as fervently as he is.

If Donald Trump — a one-time New York Democrat on his third wife with little connection to religious faith before his political run — can keep the support of the evangelical community, it seems unlikely that a conservative Alabama judge who lost his job in defense of the Ten Commandments is at much risk of seeing that support evaporate.