And it worked. He came in second among evangelical voters in the Iowa caucuses, but first among them in South Carolina. By the time he effectively clinched the nomination in early May, he'd received 39 percent of the vote from evangelicals, eight percentage points more than Ted Cruz — an actual evangelical — was able to muster. Not bad for a guy who has been married three times (his first marriage ending after infidelity), didn't attend any church with regularity, and who for a long time refused to offer up his favorite Bible verse, prompting some speculation that, perhaps, he didn't have one.
Trump's unprecedented candidacy means that we're often faced with trying to suss out whether the chicken or the egg came first. So it is with an apparent softening of the moral positions of American evangelicals: Did they become more lenient on the overlap of politics and morals because of Trump, or did Trump get lucky with his timing?
New polling from PRRI and Brookings makes clear that some softening has occurred. Five years ago, the pollsters asked respondents if a politician who had acted immorally in his or her personal life could fulfill their public duties. At that point, 44 percent of Americans said that this was possible — although only 30 percent of evangelicals agreed. When the pollsters asked the same question this year, the difference was stark: Americans overall were more lenient, with 61 percent saying that the personal failings wouldn't taint the public work. But evangelical support for the idea jumped to 72 percent, a huge shift.
Evangelicals are now more likely to say that a politician's public ethics aren't tainted by his private foibles than people who are unaffiliated with any religion.
The group also shifted significantly on the question of whether strong religious beliefs are important for a presidential candidate. The percentage saying this was very important in 2011 was 64 percent. Now? Less than half of evangelicals think this is very important. They are still more likely to say this is very important than other groups, but the importance has dropped by 15 percentage points — matching the drop among Democrats.
There has been some bafflement at the fact that the recent revelations of Trump's past comments and behavior haven't caused his support with evangelicals to collapse. (In the Post-ABC poll conducted in early September, Trump got 42 percent of the vote from evangelicals. In our most recent, he gets 57 percent.)
So which came first? Has their candidate in 2016 caused them to be more lenient in what they expect? Or did Trump come along right when evangelicals were feeling more lenient about the expectations they have for their candidates? After all, the numbers among Democrats shifted, too, and that's not a function of feeling sympathetic for Trump.
The answer to this question will probably emerge only as Republicans start thinking about whom they plan to nominate in 2020 — assuming that the evangelicals' candidate this time around doesn't get the job done.