Trump works to avoid evangelical defections in 2020

“There are plenty of evangelical Americans who maybe didn’t support President Trump in the last election because they didn’t believe he was a true ally, but who are now taking a second look at him because of his record,” said a Trump campaign adviser.

It’s a strategy that is drawing some skepticism. While Trump’s religious advisers hail the president as their greatest champion since Ronald Reagan, the policies they point to — a restrictive immigration policy, appointment of anti-abortion judges, rollback of environmental regulations and support for Israel — are often the same issues driving key religious constituencies further away from the president.

“The evangelical community has never been 100 percent lockstep conservative. The 20 percent of white evangelicals who don’t like Trump include younger voters, college-educated voters and suburban moms,” said Diana Butler Bass, a scholar of American religion.

“That the Trump campaign thinks they could pull those people away after antagonizing them for three years shows a very thin understanding of the nature of American evangelicalism,” she added.

Indeed, ahead of Trump’s Friday appearance, Florida Democrats issued a letter signed by 12 Christian leaders from five Florida counties that appealed to the president: “We cannot stand idly by while you attempt to co-opt our religion for your political gain and claim support from our community.”

The letter decried Trump for pushing policies that it said are antithetical to Christian faith: “There is absolutely nothing good or virtuous about tearing immigrant families apart, cutting programs for the poor while giving hundreds of millions of tax cuts to the wealthiest among us, or threatening to take away health care from those with preexisting conditions — all of which are lynchpins of your agenda.”

The president’s allies say he needs to add only 3 or 4 percentage points to his 65-point margin of victory among white evangelicals in 2016 in order to compensate for weakening support among other demographics, including college-educated white voters and suburban men and women. At the same time, they plan to target religious voters outside the white evangelical community who skew more conservative and live in crucial 2020 battleground states — hence the Florida location for Trump’s speech on Friday.

Former GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida described the president’s visit to Miami as “a political two-fer” for the president, since the crowd is likely to include Hispanic voters and religious individuals. Trump lost Miami-Dade County by nearly 300,000 votes in 2016, but recent polling has shown as many as 41 percent of Hispanic voters approve of his handling of the economy — a figure the campaign says gives it an opening in the critical county. That’s one of the reasons the president will underscore the accomplishments his administration has made outside the Christian conservative agenda when he speaks Friday, according to the campaign adviser.

Trump will build on the same themes he discussed in his speech at the annual Values Voter Summit in October, the adviser said. The president’s appearance at the conservative gathering last fall also came at a difficult juncture in his relationship with the evangelical community. To appease top religious allies who decried a desired troop withdrawal from Syria as rash and irresponsible, Trump used the speech to announce his administration would release $50 million in aid to Syria “to protect persecuted ethnic and religious minorities.”

The president’s aides took similar precautions during the course of impeachment to avoid any crack in the president’s support among evangelicals: On a Thursday afternoon before the House voted to impeach him, Trump met in a conference room with more than a dozen influential Christian and evangelical pastors who had been invited to the White House to pray for the president and the country.

“Honored to pray for @realDonaldTrump and our nation! Also discussed the many great accomplishments under the leadership of President Trump. He continues to work tirelessly on behalf of the American people,” tweeted televangelist Paula White-Cain, who recently joined the White House, after the gathering.

It’s unclear, however, if such overtures will work with white evangelicals who did not support the president in 2016 because they were skeptical of his conservative bona fides, opposed to his policy agenda and wary of his personality. An even greater challenge exists with Trump’s attempt to court religious Hispanics and African Americans: Only 12 percent of black Protestants supported Trump in 2016, and he lost Hispanic Catholics to Hillary Clinton by a 41-point margin, according to exit data by Pew Research Center.

“My overall sense is the roughly 20 percent of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump are pretty baked in,” Butler Bass said, adding that the same goes for Hispanics and blacks who identify as evangelical but did not support the president four years ago.

Furthermore, it could take more than enlarging his support among white evangelicals and other religious voters to ensure a path to victory next November.

In addition to his steady decline in support among suburbanites and college-educated voters, a handful of statewide elections last fall suggest the president could perform worse with rural voters in 2020, who voted for him by a 27-point margin in 2016.

In Kentucky’s gubernatorial election last November, five rural counties that supported Trump in 2016 voted against incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, despite the president’s pleas for such residents to support Bevin’s bid for a second term. Rural voters also contributed to Democratic gains in Virginia, where the GOP lost control of the state’s General Assembly.

Still, evangelical turnout for Republicans remained steady in last fall’s off-year gubernatorial, state legislative and special congressional elections, according to exit data. About 75 percent of white evangelical voters supported GOP candidates last fall and in the 2018 midterms.

The question for Trump is whether that trend will hold when he’s on the ballot in November.

Matthew Dixon contributed to this report.

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