In this short series, we’re examining why white evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump. Today’s theory is a the problem of the single-issue voter, specifically of the “We Vote Pro-Life” variety. To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s explanation for his own re-election in 1996: “It’s abortion, stupid.”
The idea is that white evangelicals prioritize expressed opposition to abortion over all other political factors combined: experience and expertise, personal morality, and all other proposed policies.
This is measurably false.
White white evangelicals do oppose abortion at higher rates than the general public (which is pretty evenly divided along a spectrum of always legal/sometimes regulated/often regulated/always illegal), with about 2/3 of them opposing abortion on all grounds except rape, incest, or risk of death for a pregnant woman, compared to about 1/3 of the general public. (And there are subsets who oppose abortion even in these cases.) But 70% of women who have had an abortion are Christians, with slightly over 40% identifying as Protestant (which would include mainline churches) and nondenominational (typically more conservative)–and that information is from LifeWay, the Southern Baptist Convention’s research arm.
These two figures alone don’t tell us the gap between white evangelical’s political and personal beliefs, but they do raise the suspicion of a discrepancy. I won’t call it hypocrisy–perhaps people become politically pro-life after their own experiences with abortion, or they chose an abortion for the same limited reasons they would permit one for another woman or they believe that abortion should be illegal, but as long as it’s not, they’ll take advantage of it (what I term the “Trump Steel Rule“).
The bigger question is: Did abortion drive Republicans to vote for Trump?
Probably for some people, yes. I’m sympathetic to the person in the voting booth, imagining all the aborted fetuses of the world up in heaven, looking down on them as they cast their ballot. (The engagement of deceased fetuses in our world is a staple of pro-life fiction, drama, and political cartoons.) I get how you could even understand that Trump’s pro-life position is entirely false but believe that you have to vote for him anyway because to vote for someone who doesn’t say they are pro-life would be a stain on your own soul.
Above, a political cartoon by Gary Varvel, whose anti-abortion cartoons often adopt the perspective of an unborn fetus or of a baby in heaven, presumably a victim of abortion.
Pragmatically, though, if you object to abortion, voting for Democrats is the most effective way to reduce the number of abortions performed in the US. And if you think that every little aborted fetus turns into an angel looking down on you, you should want abortion reduction that works over passing a purity test.
But, I’m digressing. The real question: Did people vote for Trump based on his view of abortion?
While some people surely did, the data doesn’t indicate that this was the factor that drew white evangelicals to him. Research from LifeWay indicates that the areas that white evangelicals most often identified as “very important” to their 2016 decision were the economy, foreign policy, gun control, immigration, and terrorism.
I think we can also dismiss the “It was abortion” argument for two additional reasons:
First, all the Republican primary candidates were pro-life. Any of them would have pushed for pro-life Supreme Court justices, attacked the Hyde Amendment, and otherwise pushed for policies that undermine abortion rights and access. White evangelicals chose Trump in the primary when they could have had Cruz, Carson, or Rubio.
Second, the sharp division between the two major political parties over abortion (sharper than it is between most Americans) has been in place for a long time, but the split in how evangelical voters was even bigger in 2016 than in previous election. In 2004, Bush won them 79-21 over Kerry; in 2008, McCain 73-26 over Obama; Romney 79-20 over Obama. Along with Mormons, white evangelicals are the most reliably Republican voters of all religious people surveyed by Pew.
But Trump won 81% of them–higher than Bush, McCain, or Romney. If we think that abortion explains white evangelical voters, does this mean that such voters are now more anti-abortion than in the past? That the people they were voting against (Kerry and Obama) were seen as less “pro-abortion” than Hillary (who is, remember, sometimes called “Killary” among her detractors) Clinton?
I think that it’s possible, for some of these voters, that the answer is yes. Attitudes about abortion are relatively stable, but that doesn’t mean that more voters aren’t motivated (and more motivated) to vote on the issue than in the past. Additionally, while many of us remember Clinton as a proponent of “safe, legal, and rare” abortion, others were persuaded by Trump’s description of her as a proponent of brutal (and imaginary) “late-term abortion.”
But, maybe, too, it’s hard for Americans to trust a woman when she speaks about abortion. We prefer to believe that Donald Trump is pro-life (which is about as likely as believing that he’s pro-monogamy or pro-abstinence-before-marriage or that he is Bible literate) than that a woman can be both a mother and pro-choice (though most women who have abortions are already mothers) or that a woman can be pro-choice without insisting that abortion is the only choice a pregnant person can make.
When men speak about abortion, they are read as neutral on the topic; when women do, our investment in reproduction becomes a reason to mistrust us. The thinking is this: Women only want abortion rights because we want to have reckless sex, but men are neutral arbiters about abortion because they can’t have them. For some of us, the fact that only some of us can have abortions makes women’s opinions more, rather than less, valuable; for others, though, it means women cannot be trusted to lead the conversation. Because we don’t see how abortion benefits men (When pro-lifers speak of men and abortion, they almost only talk about reproductive coercion and men whose partners chose abortion against their desire.) but depict every woman who gets an abortion as power-hungry, man-hating, child-hating, career-focused, sex-crazed, etc., some voters likely did see Trump as a defender of fetal life and Clinton as basically running an abortion clinic out of the West Wing.
But I don’t think that is strong enough to explain the high turnout for Trump all along or the continued support for him.