Donald Trump’s fate in the 2024 GOP presidential race may pivot on whether he can retain the surprisingly broad support he secured in 2016 from an unexpected group of Republican voters.
Probably the biggest surprise in Trump’s march to the GOP nomination in 2016 was the large number of votes he attracted among White evangelical Christians, who many analysts expected to resist a twice-divorced New Yorker who had earlier expressed support for abortion rights.
The key to that breakthrough was Trump’s success in carving a new fault line in the GOP primary electorate. Traditionally, a critical divide among Republican voters has been between those who identify as evangelical Christians and those who do not.
But Trump in 2016 split the GOP electorate more along lines of education, drawing commanding support from voters without a four-year college degree, whether or not they identified as evangelical Christians. Trump’s big margins among those non-college evangelicals proved critical in allowing him to win a series of culturally conservative states, especially across the South, that Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump’s principal rival on the right in 2016, had expected to propel him to the nomination.
If anything, those blue-collar evangelical Christians may be even more important to Trump’s prospects in 2024.
Early 2024 GOP presidential preference polls suggest Trump’s position may be even weaker than in 2016 among Republicans holding a four-year college degree, including both those who identify as evangelical Christians and those who do not.
Those skeptical attitudes mean that to hold off the challenge that may develop from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, among others in a field of uncertain size, Trump likely will need to maximize his support among the non-college Republicans who have always comprised his most ardent backers. And in many Republican primaries, a substantial portion, sometimes a majority, of those non-college GOP voters identify as evangelical Christians.
With some prominent evangelical figures joining other GOP leaders in openly suggesting the party should move on from Trump in 2024, the former president will find it difficult to build a winning primary coalition if he cannot replicate the elevated level of blue-collar evangelical support he achieved in his stunning race to the nomination in 2016.
Evangelical White Protestants have been steadily shrinking in society overall: in results to be released later this month, the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute will place them at just under one-seventh of the adult population, down from nearly one-fourth in 2006. But they remain a much more significant component of the GOP coalition.
In PRRI’s data, just under one-third of Republican partisans identify as evangelical Christians. In a recent poll conducted for The Bulwark, a conservative website, veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres projected White evangelicals as almost two-fifths of the likely 2024 GOP primary electorate.
The exit polls conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations including CNN found that White evangelical or born-again voters comprised just over half of GOP primary voters in 2016 – with non-White evangelicals contributing another few percentage points, according to a cumulative analysis of the 2016 exit polls by CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta. (That cumulative analysis found evangelicals to be a larger share of the GOP vote than those other sources likely for two reasons: first, because it asks voters whether they consider themselves evangelical or “born again,” which captures a few points 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 plentiful, such as the Mountain West and Pacific Coast.)
The gap between voters who identify as evangelical Christians and those who do not had proven the most important dynamic in the two contested GOP presidential primaries immediately before Trump’s win in 2016.
Both the 2008 and 2012 GOP presidential primaries ultimately resolved into a contest between one candidate who relied primarily on support from evangelical Christians (Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012) and one who depended mostly on non-evangelicals (John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012). Each time the non-evangelical candidate won the nomination with an almost identical pattern of support: both McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 won about half of the non-evangelical GOP primary voters, which allowed them to prevail despite winning only about one-third of those who did identify as evangelicals, according to cumulative analyses of the exit polls in those years conducted by Gary Langer of ABC News.
Education had started to emerge as an important dividing line in those earlier races: Romney, for instance, had won college-educated voters in more states than he carried non-college voters. But at the key moments in those earlier contests, whether voters were evangelicals or not remained the most important variable. In the decisive 2008 South Carolina primary, for instance, McCain won a much higher share of voters who were not evangelicals than those who were, and there were only minimal differences between those with and without college degrees in each group. In the 2012 South Carolina primary, the evangelical divide was again much more powerful than the educational divide in shaping the support for Romney, Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the three principal contenders.
Trump reset that axis in 2016. He made education the most important factor among voters in the race. That educational fault line rumbled through almost all states, and almost all key constituencies, including evangelical Christians. The dynamic of education levels supplanting evangelical affiliation as the principal separation among Republican voters was “unique to Trump,” says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in South Carolina. “You don’t find that kind of division generally for Republican candidates.”
While McCain and Romney had been very strong among voters who were not evangelicals and quite weak among evangelicals, Trump’s support didn’t diverge as much between those poles. Instead, through the key 2016 contests, Trump consistently ran much better among voters without a four-year college degree than among those with one, whether or not they were evangelicals.
That allowed Trump in 2016 to neutralize Cruz’ expected edge among evangelicals because those without degrees voted more like other blue-collar Republicans than they did like the white-collar evangelicals. Among Republican voters, said Ayres, the GOP pollster, “the education divide” has been “a better predictor of Donald Trump’s strength than the evangelical/non-evangelical divide.”
Most important was how that pattern played out in South Carolina – the state that has voted for the eventual winner in every GOP primary since 1980 except once (in 2012 when Gingrich unexpectedly carried the state.) Because evangelicals are such a large share of the vote there, it was critical to Cruz’ hopes of stopping Trump. But Trump won it comfortably even though the exit polls found he carried only 22% of college-educated evangelicals there; the principal reason was that he won twice as high a percentage among evangelicals without a degree (44%), an even greater share than he won among non-college voters who were not evangelicals, according to exit polls.
Even after Trump’s victory in South Carolina, Cruz’s campaign said publicly that they expected to revive by beating the New Yorker across the upcoming slate of Southern contests where evangelical Christians typically comprise a majority of GOP primary voters. Instead, exit polls found that Trump beat Cruz among non-college White evangelicals in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia as well as Michigan and tied him with those voters in Arkansas and Missouri. That strength was critical to Trump capturing all of those states and ultimately winning the nomination fairly easily.
Across all the contested states in 2016, Trump won only 32% of all evangelicals with a college degree, according to Agiesta’s cumulative analysis of the 2016 exit polls. But Trump carried 45% of all evangelicals without a degree. That was enough to provide Trump a narrow plurality of the total White evangelical vote, “to the surprise of almost everyone,” as the veteran Republican evangelical strategist Ralph Reed recently observed.
Combined with Trump’s strong support among non-evangelicals without a degree, that was enough to power him to a convincing win, despite his consistent weakness among college-educated Republican voters (whether or not they identified as evangelicals).
Early indications are that education will remain a critical fault line in the 2024 GOP race, including among evangelical voters. Ayres said that in the recent 2024 polling he conducted for The Bulwark, Trump ran about even with DeSantis among non-college evangelicals when the two were matched with a large field of potential contenders, while DeSantis led the former president fairly comfortably among both college-educated evangelicals and non-evangelicals with and without a degree.
Echelon Insights, another Republican polling firm, cumulated the results for me from their 2024 GOP primary polls from November through January. That polling found Trump, when placed in a large field, still drawing nearly half of the non-college White evangelicals (and comfortably leading DeSantis with them, a better showing than Ayres found). But the firm found Trump winning only about one-fourth of the college-educated evangelicals and trailing DeSantis among them. In a two-way match up, Trump drew about three-fifths of the non-college evangelicals, while DeSantis attracted a mirror image of about three-fifths of the college educated evangelicals, according to Nolan Combs, the firm’s research director. PRRI recently found that Trump’s favorability rating was a striking 17 percentage points higher among the non-college White Republican evangelicals than among those with a degree.
PRRI’s studies have found that nearly three-fourths of the total White evangelical Protestant population lacks a college degree; because college educated voters turn out in bigger numbers, the balance is somewhat closer in the GOP primary, with the non-college side representing around 55% of the total White evangelical vote, according to the exit poll analysis. Still, evangelicals without a degree represent a larger block of Republican primary voters than either evangelicals with a degree, or non-evangelicals with or without one, the exit poll analysis found. That means that for all of Trump’s other challenges, they would provide him a formidable base – if he can hold them.
Can he? National polling PRRI released this month found that huge majorities of those non-college White evangelical Republicans express many of the cultural and racial anxieties Trump has tapped throughout his political career. Seventy percent or more of those non-college evangelicals agreed that discrimination against Whites is now as big a problem as bias against minorities; that the growing number of immigrants threaten American customs and values; and that society is growing too soft and feminine, according to unpublished results PRRI provided to CNN. Seven-in-ten of the non-college evangelical Republicans also “strongly” supported the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Notably fewer college-educated White evangelicals expressed each of those beliefs, the survey found.
“The politics of grievance does have a stronger appeal to those without a college degree,” said Robert P. Jones, founder and president of the PRRI.
Still, the share of college-educated White evangelicals who agree with those core Trump cultural arguments remains much larger than the share who express support for Trump himself in 2024. Ayres, like others I spoke with, believes the gap between college and non-college White evangelical Republicans can be explained less by differing views on issues than by their divergent responses to Trump’s bellicose persona. “I think it’s style, attitude, anti-establishment approach as much as it is specific cultural issues related to evangelical support, like being pro-life on abortion or anti-gay marriage,” Ayres said. “It is cultural and economic and fundamentally anti-establishment, populist if you will.”
Guth said that DeSantis, with a somewhat more buttoned-down (if only faintly less combative) style than Trump may be well suited to attract college-educated Republican voters, especially evangelicals, “who don’t like the Trump style even though they like the Trump policies.” With DeSantis “already fighting the culture wars,” in a way that establishes his social conservative credentials, Guth said 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.”
Dave Wilson, president and executive director of the Palmetto Family Council, the most prominent social conservative organization in South Carolina, also sees an opening emerging for DeSantis or other alternatives to Trump, less on educational than generational lines. “You’ve got a group of people who are followers of Donald Trump from a populist standpoint,” he said. “But I… keep seeing there are other groups who are saying, ‘we are looking 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 DeSantis, if he runs, might face the same quandary as Trump’s opponents in 2016: while Trump consolidated blue-collar Republicans to a remarkable extent in a crowded field, college-educated Republicans (whether evangelical or not) never coalesced behind a single alternative; ultimately they split their vote among too many competitors to decide the outcome. On paper, many of the other Republicans considering the 2024 race – a list that includes Nikki Haley, Larry Hogan, Chris Sununu, Glenn Youngkin, Mike Pompeo and Tim Scott – again appear better positioned to attract college-educated voters than to poach significant numbers of non-college voters from Trump.
To prevent another divide and conquer win for Trump, some other candidate almost certainly will need to crack his defenses among Republicans without a college degree, including blue-collar evangelical Christians. For the rest of the GOP field –and for the party itself – the challenge will be to connect with those voters without taking absolutist positions on cultural issues that alienate the socially moderate white-collar suburbanites who have provided decisive support for Democrats in the Trump era. “That’s the dilemma: can anyone win a Republican nomination and win the general election?” said Guth. “Winning both, it seems to me, is not an easy task, and it’s getting harder as time goes on.”