Whether Donald Trump can maintain the remarkably wide support he won in 2016 from an unexpected segment of Republican voters may determine how he does in the 2024 GOP presidential election.
The majority of White evangelical Christians who voted for Trump in 2016 was probably the biggest surprise, as many pundits had predicted that they would oppose a twice-divorced New Yorker who had previously indicated support for abortion rights.
Trump’s ability to create a brand-new fault line in the GOP primary electorate was crucial to that breakthrough. The difference between Republican supporters who identify as evangelical Christians and those who do not have historically been a significant dividing line.
Trump, however, effectively divided the GOP electorate in 2016 along educational lines, winning over those without a four-year college degree regardless of whether they identified as evangelical Christians. Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump’s main adversary on the right in 2016, had anticipated that his large margins among these non-college evangelicals would help him win several culturally conservative states, notably in the South.
If anything, those evangelical blue-collar Christians could be even more crucial to Trump’s chances in 2024.
Early 2024 GOP presidential preference polls indicate that Trump’s standing among Republicans with a four-year college degree, including both those who identify as evangelical Christians and those who do not, maybe much worse than it was in 2016.
Because of these skeptic attitudes, Trump will likely need to increase his support among the non-college Republicans who have always made up his most ardent supporters if he wants to fend off the challenge that may arise from the likes of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and others in a field of uncertain size. However, a sizable percentage, often even the majority, of those Republican primary voters who are not college students identify as evangelical Christians.
If the former president is unable to replicate the elevated level of blue-collar evangelical support he attained in his stunning race to the nomination in 2016, he will find it challenging to build a winning primary coalition given that some prominent evangelical figures are openly joining other GOP leaders in suggesting the party move on from Trump in 2024.
Evangelical White Protestants have been slowly losing ground in society as a whole. According to findings from the nonpartisan Public, Religion Research Institute scheduled for release later this month, they now make up just under one-seventh of adults, down from almost one-fourth in 2006. Yet, they continue to be a significantly more important part of the GOP coalition.
According to PRRI research, little less than one-third of Republican party members identify as evangelical Christians. White evangelicals were predicted to make up nearly two-fifths of the potential GOP primary electorate in 2024 by veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres in a recent survey for the conservative website The Bulwark.
According to a cumulative analysis of the 2016 exit polls by the associated press polling director Jennifer Agiesta, White evangelical or born-again voters made up just over half of GOP primary voters in 2016, with non-White evangelicals contributing an additional few percentage points. The exit polls were conducted by Edison Research for a coalition of media organizations, including the associated press. (That cumulative analysis found evangelicals to be a larger share of the GOP vote than those other sources, most likely due to the following two factors: first, because it asks voters whether they consider themselves evangelical or “born again,” which captures a small percentage of Catholics who identify as born again, and second because the competitive primary states in which exit polls were conducted in 2016 leaned more heavily toward the South than other regions where evangelicals are less prevalent.)
The most significant factor in the two competitive GOP presidential primaries that took place just before Trump’s victory in 2016 was the divide between those who identify as evangelical Christians and those who do not.
Both the Republican presidential primaries in 2008 and 2012 ended up being a struggle between a candidate who mostly relied on support from evangelical Christians (Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008) and one who primarily relied on non-evangelicals (John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012). According to cumulative analyses of the GOP primary exit polls from those years conducted by Gary Langer of ABC News, the non-evangelical candidate won the nomination each time with a pattern of support that was nearly identical: McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 each won about half of the non-evangelical GOP primary voters, which allowed them to win despite winning only about one-third of those who did identify as evangelicals.
In those earlier elections, education had begun to emerge as a key differentiator. Romney, for example, had won college-educated voters in more states than he had non-college voters. But in those prior elections, whether or not voters were evangelicals remained the most crucial factor at crucial moments. For instance, McCain won a substantially higher proportion of non-evangelical voters than evangelical voters in the pivotal 2008 South Carolina primary, yet there were almost any disparities between voters with and without college degrees in either group. The evangelical difference was once more significantly more influential in determining support for Romney, Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, the three main contenders, in the 2012 South Carolina primary than the educational divide.
In 2016, Trump reoriented that axis. He emphasized the importance of education to voters in the contest. Almost all states and practically all important constituents, including evangelical Christians, were affected by this educational fault line. According to Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in South Carolina, the dynamic of education levels replacing evangelical affiliation as the key factor dividing Republican votes was “unique to Trump.” “You don’t typically find that level of conflict among Republican contenders.”
Trump’s support didn’t differ as much between those two extremes as McCain and Romney did, who were quite strong among those who weren’t evangelical and rather weak among evangelicals. Instead, Trump repeatedly performed considerably better in the crucial 2016 elections among voters without a four-year college degree than among those with one, regardless of whether they were evangelical.
Because individuals without degrees voted more like other blue-collar Republicans than they did like the white-collar evangelicals in 2016, Trump was able to offset Cruz’ anticipated advantage among evangelicals. According to GOP pollster Ayres, “the education split” has been a greater indicator of Donald Trump’s support among Republicans than the evangelical/non-evangelical divide.
The most crucial factor was how that trend behaved in South Carolina, which, save from one GOP primary since 1980, has consistently supported the eventual victor (in 2012 when Gingrich unexpectedly carried the state.) It was essential to Cruz’s efforts to defeat Trump since evangelical voters made up such a significant portion of the electorate there. The main reason Trump won was that he won twice as many evangelicals without a degree (44%), an even bigger share than he gained among non-college voters who were not evangelicals, according to exit polls, even though he only carried 22% of college-educated evangelicals there.
Cruz’s campaign made it known that they intended to rebound by defeating the New Yorker in the forthcoming slate of Southern races, where evangelical Christians generally make up the majority of GOP primary votes, even after Trump’s triumph in South Carolina. Instead, according to exit polls, Trump tied with these voters in Arkansas and Missouri and defeated Cruz among non-college White evangelicals in Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, and Michigan. Trump’s ability to win all those states and ultimately the nomination quite handily was largely due to this strength.
According to Agiesta’s comprehensive study of the 2016 exit polls, Trump won only 32% of all evangelicals with a college degree in all the contest states. Yet, Trump won 45% of all evangelicals who lack a degree. According to longtime Republican evangelical strategist Ralph Reed, that was enough to give Trump a slim majority of the White evangelical vote overall, “to the amazement of practically everyone.”
Trump consistently performs poorly among Republican voters who have a college education, but that was enough to propel him to a clear victory when combined with his strong support among non-evangelicals without a degree (whether or not they identified as evangelicals).
According to early predictions, evangelical voters will be among those who view education as a major issue in the GOP presidential election in 2024. Ayres claimed that in the most recent 2024 poll, he conducted for The Bulwark, DeSantis comfortably led Trump among both college-educated evangelicals and non-evangelicals with and without a degree, while Trump ran roughly even with DeSantis among non-college evangelicals when the two were matched with a large field of potential candidates.
I compiled the results from the 2024 GOP primary polls conducted by Echelon Insights, another Republican polling organization, between November and January. According to that study, even in a crowded field, Trump still manages to attract close to half of non-college White evangelicals (and comfortably leading DeSantis with them, a better showing than Ayres found). But, the firm discovered that Trump was losing to DeSantis among the college-educated evangelicals, gaining only approximately one-fourth of them. According to Nolan Combs, the firm’s research director, in a two-way race, Trump garnered almost three-fifths of the non-college evangelicals, while DeSantis attracted a mirror image of approximately three-fifths of the college-educated evangelicals. Trump’s favorability rating among White Republican evangelicals without a college degree was shockingly 17 percentage points higher than among those with one, according to a recent PRRI study.
Nearly three-fourths of all White evangelical Protestants, according to studies by PRRI, lack a college degree. Because more voters with a college education turn out to vote, the balance is a little closer in the GOP primary, with the non-college side accounting for about five percent of the entire White evangelical vote. Yet, the exit poll analysis indicated that evangelicals without a degree represent a larger portion of Republican primary voters than either evangelical with a degree or non-evangelicals with or without one. In other words, if he can hold them, they would give Trump a strong basis from which to face all of his other difficulties.
Can he? A large majority of those non-college White evangelical Republicans, according to a recent national poll by PRRI, express many of the racial and cultural worries that Trump has exploited throughout his political career. According to unpublished data PRRI provided to the associated press, at least 70% of those non-college evangelicals agreed that prejudice against Whites is now as big of a problem as prejudice against minorities, that the increasing number of immigrants threatens American traditions and values, and that society is becoming too soft and feminine. Seven out of ten evangelical Republicans who are not in college “strongly” backed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The study indicated that each of those opinions was voiced by noticeably fewer college-educated White evangelicals.
Robert P. Jones, the PRRI’s founder, and president claimed that those without a college education were more likely to be drawn to the politics of grievance.
Even so, in 2024, the proportion of college-educated White evangelicals who concur with these fundamental Trump cultural claims will still be significantly higher than the proportion who do so. Ayres, like other White evangelical Republicans I spoke with, thinks that the difference between college- and non-college-educated Republicans can be explained less by their diverse political ideologies than by how they reacted to Trump’s bellicose character. As much as it is specific cultural issues associated with evangelical support, like being pro-life on abortion or anti-gay marriage, Ayres believes that it is style, attitude, and an anti-establishment stance. It is anti-establishment and anti-cultural, or populist if you like.
DeSantis, according to Guth, may be better suited to win over Republican supporters with college educations, particularly evangelicals, who “don’t like the Trump manner even though they appreciate the Trump policies,” due to his slightly more subdued (albeit only marginally less confrontational) style than Trump. Guth asserted that it’s likely that “the middle class and upper-middle-class evangelical types will certainly find him more appealing than Trump, especially after the events of January 6” because DeSantis “is already fighting the culture wars,” in a way that establishes his social conservative credentials.
Larry Wilson, president and executive director of the Palmetto Family Council, the most well-known social conservative group in South Carolina, believes that DeSantis or other Trump opponents may be able to get support along generational rather than educational lines. From a populist perspective, there is a segment of people that support Donald Trump, he added. But I…keep noticing that other organizations are saying, “We are searching for a new standard bearer of the conservative message-someone who can take that beyond the next eight years to the next two or three decades.
But if he runs, DeSantis might encounter the same problem as Trump’s opponents in 2016: whereas Trump successfully unified blue-collar Republicans in a crowded field, college-educated Republicans (whether evangelical or not) never did the same; in the end, they divided their vote among too many candidates to determine the winner. On paper, several of the other Republicans thinking about running in 2024, including Nikki Haley, Larry Hogan, Chris Sununu, Glenn Youngkin, Mike Pompeo, and Tim Scott, seem to be better positioned to win over college-educated voters than to steal many of those supporters away from Trump.
Some other contender will very probably need to break through Trump’s defenses among Republicans without a college degree, particularly blue-collar evangelical Christians, to prevent another divide-and-conquer victory for Trump. The difficulty for the remainder of the GOP field, as well as the party, will be to appeal to these voters without adopting absolutist stances on cultural issues that alienate the socially moderate white-collar suburbanites who have been the party’s most reliable supporters during the Trump era. Guth posed the question, “Who can win a Republican nomination and win the general election? It appears to me that winning both is a difficult undertaking that is becoming more difficult over time.