Conservative evangelicals are the core of Donald Trump’s support, so it’s no surprise that they turned out in force for the midterm elections. Certainly, religious right leaders were hardly shy about claiming credit for Republican victories (without pointing out just how limited in number they were).
“I think the White House and the RGA [Republican Governors Association] and the National Republican Senatorial Committee and certainly Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott are very grateful tonight that the rapture didn’t happen before the early voting began because if it had, they would have lost in a landslide,” Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC) told CBN. “The evangelicals delivered this vote in a big way.”
Brian Brown, head of the dead-but-not-buried National Organization for Marriage, proclaimed that his group had successfully “targeted” three losing Democratic Senators. It’s fair to see that the three—Claire McCaskill, Joe Donnelly and Heidi Heitkamp—didn’t need NOM’s imaginary clout to do them in.
“It’s very clear that we have significantly strengthened our position in the Senate, which was our sole focus,” Brown still crowed.
It is true that the turnout for the midterm elections was far higher than anyone anticipated. In general, turnout was strongest among white, older voters, which is a pretty good description of many evangelical Christians.
To bolster its boasting, FFC released a survey which purports to show that record numbers of conservative Christian turned out to support the GOP. The survey found that 35 percent of the electorate self-identified as conservative Christians, and these voters cast 86 percent of their ballots for Republicans and only 12 percent for Democrats.
However, those numbers look awfully inflated. Other exit polls find nowhere near as many self-identified Christians. ABC News pegged the number at 27 percent, consistent with past elections.
Moreover, CNN’s preliminary analysis found that self-identified evangelicals voted for Republicans about 75 percent of the time. Twenty two percent of the time, they voted for Democrats, underscoring the fact that the evangelical movement isn’t entirely synonymous with the right. That’s a drop from the estimated 81 percent who voted for Trump in 2016.
The claims of victory also hide another problem: the religious right is shrinking. As a percentage of the population, there are fewer conservative Christians now than there were just two years ago.
There will be even fewer by the time the 2020 vote rolls around. No amount of voter turnout can overcome that demographic reality.
That doesn’t mean that the religious right won’t be a political force to reckon with. But it does mean that conservative evangelical leaders may have to rethink their strategy.
They can make soothing noises, like the American Family Association is, about wanting to “unify” the nation, which flies in the face of Trump’s MO. Or they can double down on the us vs. them mentality, like the Family Research Council, which used Democratic advances in the midterms to plead for more money from its followers.
In the meantime, though, the religious right will happily take a victory lap. Whether they deserve it is an entirely separate question.