But whatever truth there is to that explanation, it has never encompassed the whole story. Christians weren’t unthinking when they supported this heathen. In 2016, many evangelicals simply prized his inclination to attack sneering elites more than they concerned themselves with his amoral conduct. Much as they might have disapproved of his personal behavior, his candidacy became an outlet and an instrument for their resentments. And in the great tradition of hating the sin and loving the sinner, they ate it up.
That speaks to an unacknowledged reality: Identity doesn’t solely define American politics. Voters aren’t vassals who blindly support candidates who look or act (or eat or pray) like them. And frankly, it’s insulting to presume that a certain slice of a demographic will support a candidate simply because they share a candidate’s characteristic or trait.
That same dynamic applies in the Democratic presidential contest. When Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) decided to center her campaign on an explicit appeal to women, her message fell flat, even among female voters. Former vice president Joe Biden has consistently polled better among African Americans than both Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J). Before he dropped out, Julián Castro was tied for fifth in a poll of Latino voters, despite being the only Latino candidate. And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the oldest candidate in the field, appears to be doing better among progressive millennials than the field’s youngest candidate, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Identity is influential in a voter’s mind — but it’s informative, not determinative. John F. Kennedy explicitly disavowed accusations that he was nothing more than a representative of his religion in 1960, famously arguing, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.” In 2008, Barack Obama made the same point: “Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country.”
In Iowa, like other early states, many voters are undecided explicitly because they’re considering what the candidates have to say, what they propose to do and how their narratives reveal how they might govern. They’re proving to be concerned with far more than identity politics. And while it’s not the same thing, you can see echoes of the evangelical community’s support for Trump in the way Democratic primary voters are willing to look beyond gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation in candidate selection. Why, for example, would anyone have presumed that young voters were likely to support the youngest candidate or that Latino voters would only back a Latino candidate?
In the end, candidates win elections by capturing the zeitgeist of the moment. After eight years of Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush promised Americans “a kinder, gentler nation.” Amid the Bush recession, Bill Clinton promised to be “change versus more of the same.” After the scourge of Speaker Newt Gingrich, Gov. George W. Bush promised to govern with “compassionate conservatism.” And after Bush committed the United States to what would become the longest war in the nation’s history, Obama personified “the audacity of hope.”
All of this is to say that demographics is not destiny. Most voters will look past any given candidate’s identity if their ideas appeal to what the electorate wants from a commander in chief at that particular moment in history. During a year when Democrats are justifiably consumed with anger at Trump, we need to focus on contrasting our competence and capability against the incumbent’s desire for chaos and constant conflict. Voters are ready for something different. But to win, we need to embody a hopeful future that Trump’s fear-mongering will never deliver.