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Be skeptical of the ‘wave’ of evangelical voters

Bloc consistently makes up a quarter of the electorate

Chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition Ralph Reed pats Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump on the shoulder after Trump spoke at the Faith & Freedom Road to Majority conference at the Washington Hilton on Saturday.
Chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition Ralph Reed pats Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump on the shoulder after Trump spoke at the Faith & Freedom Road to Majority conference at the Washington Hilton on Saturday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — There’s a casual term in white, evangelical churches for pastors or evangelists who exaggerate their influence. It’s called “evangelistically speaking.” Unfortunately, that temptation can also creep into political analysis. 

Twelve Republican presidential candidates, from former President Donald Trump to Larry Elder and everyone in between, made an appearance at the recent Faith & Freedom Coalition conference. That’s no surprise, considering white evangelicals’ power within the Republican Party and their influence in the 2024 GOP nominating contest. 

But white evangelicals’ impact in the general election is more muted than some leaders are describing or expecting. 

“It’s bigger than the African American vote, the Hispanic vote and the union vote combined. And that’s why all these candidates are here,” Faith & Freedom Coalition chairman and founder Ralph Reed told CBN News over the weekend, referring to the clout of evangelical voters. “I think the faith community is going to step up in a big way in 2024 and turn out like never before.”

Do evangelicals make up that large share of the electorate compared with Black, Hispanic and union voters? The short answer is: no. 

White born-again or evangelical Christians made up 24 percent of the electorate in the 2022 elections, according to the media consortium exit poll conducted for CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS. Black (11 percent) and Latino (11 percent) voters and those from a union household (18 percent) combined to constitute 40 percent of the vote. 

A second exit poll, conducted for Fox News, The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal, broke out voters who were union members (11 percent) and voters who had a union member in their household (6 percent), but the end result was the same. 

White evangelicals made up 20 percent of the electorate in 2022, according to the second exit poll, while Black (11 percent), Hispanic (10 percent) and union members (11 percent) combined for 32 percent of the electorate. Adding in voters in a union household, that coalition ticked up 38 percent — nearly double the white evangelical vote. 

It’s possible that Reed is referring to a broader segment of voters, like in 2018 when he was touting the size of the “conservative Christian” vote, but then there would be overlap with the groups he is comparing. There are plenty of conservative Christians who are also Black, Hispanic, or part of a union household. So pitting the groups against each other is difficult.

Are white evangelicals poised for a huge turnout in 2024? It’s possible, but not likely. 

Despite the claims of expansion going back years, the white evangelical vote has been stunningly static in its share of the electorate. It doesn’t even seem to vary from presidential years to midterm elections. 

White evangelicals made up an average of 25.4 percent of the electorate in the past 10 election cycles going back 20 years, according to the media consortium exit poll. That includes white evangelicals making up 26 percent of the electorate in the 2008, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018 cycles. Remember, they made up 24 percent in 2022, and the high-water mark over the past two decades was 28 percent in 2020. 

So it’s possible that evangelicals “turn out like never before” next year, but it’s not likely to be a dramatic change in proportion to the electorate at large. In the past, when the number of evangelical voters went up, non-evangelical voters turned out in larger numbers as well.

No matter how many white evangelical voters turn out, they’ll largely vote Republican. The only uncertainty is in the margin. 

In 2022, white evangelicals voted for Republican candidates for Congress over Democrats 83 percent to 15 percent in the media consortium exit poll and 80 percent to 19 percent in the Wall Street Journal/FOX/AP survey. That’s after supporting Trump 76 percent to 24 percent in 2020. 

So while white evangelicals are a sizable and important part of the electorate, according to the data, a wave of them is unlikely.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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