It wasn’t until Election Day, when returns showed counties across Michigan, Georgia and the industrial Midwest leaning toward Joe Biden due to a groundswell of religious support, that the Trump campaign realized it had a problem.
For months, President Donald Trump’s top aides and religious allies dismissed his softening support with white evangelicals and Catholic voters as a polling fluke — another media-spun narrative intended to frighten the incumbent Republican and his top donors. No president had ever done more for these demographics, they claimed, pointing to the unfettered access many conservative Christian groups had to the Trump administration and the influence they wielded over policy priorities and judicial nominees.
“You can look at the polls but at the end of the day, the president will perform very well with Catholic voters because he has delivered for them in so many ways,” senior Trump campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp, a Catholic herself, said in an interview just days before the election.
In the end, surveys of early voters and exit polls showed they may have been the difference in his loss.
Between 47 percent and 50 percent of Catholic voters supported Trump — a small decline from 2016, but enough to cost him the Rust Belt states that mattered most to his path to victory. Nationally, the president carried white Catholics by a 15-point margin, according to AP/VoteCast data, marking a significant decline from his 33-point margin of victory over Hillary Clinton four years ago.
Trump’s slippage with white evangelicals was less pronounced — surveys showed him carrying 76 percent to 78 percent of the white, born-again Christian vote — a slight decrease from 2016, when he won support from about 8 in 10 white evangelicals. But it had far-reaching implications for the president in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia, where current vote totals show him losing by less than 1 percent.
The marginal decline in Trump’s appeal among Christian constituencies that overwhelmingly supported him against Clinton has led to finger-pointing inside his campaign. Some aides blamed the president’s inability to garner the same levels of support this cycle on his transactional view of religious voters, suggesting white evangelicals and Catholics in some parts of the country may have felt taken advantage of. Others accused the Trump campaign of becoming complacent in a race that saw unprecedented outreach by the Democratic nominee to evangelical and Catholic voters.
“When we look back on this moment from the lens of, ‘Here’s what the Republican nominee needs to do to win in 2024,’ I hope there will be people saying we shouldn’t take Christian conservatives for granted,” said one adviser to the Trump campaign, who added that future GOP presidential hopefuls “should never again assume white evangelicals can’t be persuaded by the right candidate with a D next to his or her name.”
There is perhaps no better illustration of how the Trump campaign failed to neutralize the threat of Biden’s outreach to Christian voters than in Kent County, Mich. An evangelical enclave in the Midwestern battleground state, the county gave Biden 50,000 more votes this cycle than Clinton drew four years earlier, ultimately flipping it from red to blue.
“In the Midwest, we saw gains that in a number of ways outpaced our margin of victory,” said Josh Dickson, national faith engagement director for the Biden campaign. “The reason we won in these key states is because of the coalition we built. I think the work we did to engage evangelicals and Catholics undoubtedly helped us get there.”
In Georgia, where white evangelicals make up about 35 percent of the electorate, exit poll data shows Biden grew white evangelical support for the Democratic ticket by 9 percentage points, drawing 14 percent support to Clinton’s 5 percent in 2016. As the traditionally red state heads to a likely recount, Biden leads Trump by just over 10,000 votes out of 5 million cast in Georgia overall.
“It’s just an unbelievable swing. He basically tripled Clinton’s numbers with white evangelicals,” said Michael Wear, a former faith adviser in the Obama administration. “To be clear, if Biden would have performed as poorly as Clinton did four years ago among white evangelicals, he would have lost Georgia and this election.”
The Biden campaign says it decided early on to intentionally pursue white Catholic and evangelical voters — two groups that have often been brushed aside by Democrats who consider them irredeemably conservative and thus not persuadable.
But with a devout Catholic candidate at the top of the Democratic ticket, much less one who was running in an election where cultural Catholics in the Rust Belt would have an outsize impact on the outcome, Biden’s team developed a three-pronged approach to carefully and deliberately court faith voters. It ran ads on Christian radio, solicited endorsements from prominent Catholic and evangelical figures, weaved faith-based themes into the party’s virtual convention in July and nearly every major speech Biden delivered. It hosted weekly devotionals, cultivated prayer groups and built interfaith and denomination-specific coalitions — all with the goal of making sure religious Americans felt their votes mattered personally to the Democratic nominee.
“We very much anchored our faith outreach around three priorities: Making people of faith feel valued and respected by this campaign. Making sure people of faith knew we were directly asking for their votes and making the affirmative case for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as opposed to just the case against Donald Trump,” said Dickson.
“We saw a contrast in values this election cycle and that really provided an opening where we made strategic bets with faith groups and invested more in our outreach, resources and programming,” a senior Biden campaign aide said.
Even in his acceptance speech Saturday night, Biden struck a pastoral tone — invoking scripture to reassure a deeply divided nation that “this is the time to heal in America.”
“The Bible tells us that to everything there is a season,” Biden said. “Now, let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.”
The Trump campaign spent the bulk of the 2020 cycle building a case for its candidate based on his accomplishments and fears that a Democratic administration could unleash hostility and restrictions on Americans of faith.
Top advisers to the president and many of his most prominent evangelical surrogates said his record on the courts, abortion issues, immigration, Israel and the Second Amendment would lock in the same percentage, or more, of white evangelical and Catholic voters. They ignored warning signs that suggested some of these voters were worn out by the president’s divisive tactics and inability to temper his rhetoric, even as they supported many of his policy achievements.
“There was a dangerous assumption that became ingrained in the campaign that said these voters care only about abortion, guns and judges, so let’s stay focused on that,” said a Republican close to the Trump campaign. “Part of the problem is the president’s team didn’t want to make this a personality contest and so they ended up ignoring the concerns that some Christians had, which ultimately led them to vote for the other guy.”
The Trump campaign maintained this strategy until the closing hours of the 2020 race. At his final rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Nov. 2, Trump ribbed his opponent for being against “guns, oil and God” and promised the crowd that four more years in the White House would enable him to appoint more conservative judges to the federal court system.
“If you’re against oil, that’s not good politics — right, Texas? And he’s against God,” the president said of Biden.
Progressive evangelical groups and Biden campaign aides who were involved in faith outreach this cycle acknowledged that Trump was a unique opponent to run against because his behavior and messaging gave them an unprecedented opportunity to make inroads with previously undeliverable voters. At the same time, they believe Democrats in future cycles can nevertheless benefit from the playbook they used as long as they approach faith-based outreach with an authentic interest in connecting with these voters.
“If there’s one thing I want for the Biden campaign and Democrats to take, it’s that when there’s a robust invitation to these voters, you can grab anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of them,” said Minnesota pastor Doug Pagitt, who serves as executive director of the progressive faith outreach group Vote Common Good. “That’s exactly the range we projected at the beginning of this race if things went right with the right candidate, and we feel vindicated standing here today.”