White evangelical support for Trump drops slightly in preliminary exit polling

Trump's support among Protestants, Catholics, Hispanics and blacks increases

Joel Perez prays during the 'Evangelicals for Trump' campaign event held at the King Jesus International Ministry as they await the arrival of President Donald Trump on January 03, 2020 in Miami, Florida. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Preliminary 2020 election exit polls released Wednesday suggest that President Donald Trump lost about 4 percentage points in white evangelical support compared to the 2016 election, but gained support in key demographics such as Catholics, Protestants, blacks and Latinos. 

Early exit polling data conducted for The Washington Post and other media outlets indicates that Trump, the Republican incumbent, garnered 76% of the white evangelical vote, while former Vice President and Democratic nominee Joe Biden picked up 23% of the white evangelical vote. 

The early polling result comes as Trump enjoyed between 80-81% of the white evangelical vote in the 2016 presidential election exit polling. Only 16% of white evangelical and born-again Christian voters surveyed said they voted for then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Throughout his term, Trump has long sought the approval of conservative evangelicals as they have become one of his most loyal voting blocs. Meanwhile, the Biden campaign made some efforts in recent months to appeal to evangelical voters of faith. 

The preliminary exit polling data suggests that Trump did not fare as well as 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney did with white evangelicals, as the data from that year found that the former Massachusetts governor received 78% of the white evangelical vote. 

The 2020 preliminary exit poll results also suggest that Biden, a Catholic, also performed better than Obama did with white evangelicals in 2012.

It is important to note, however, that early exit polling results are preliminary and could change as more surveys are analyzed and results are re-weighted to match trends in vote totals. Preliminary national and state exit poll results consist of interviews from randomly selected voters as they exited polling locations across the country on Nov. 3. The polls were conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool and media organizations. 

“I think the exit polls are telling a fairly consistent message about the white evangelical vote,” Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, told The Christian Post on Wednesday. 

“I've seen several that all pegs vote share to about 76-77%. That's pretty much in line with what high-quality surveys told us a few months after the election. He won 77.4% of white evangelicals, according to the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. The issue that exists with exit polls is that they use a self-identification question about being an evangelical. This means that this sample includes Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Buddhists who tell pollsters they are born-again.”

Burge said that a better measure would take “a lot more questions” to determine a respondent's evangelical identity and “exit polling has to be done quickly.”

“We should have a healthy dose of skepticism about these early results,” Burge stressed. 

Ralph Reed, a leading conservative evangelical activist who heads the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a national Christian conservative grassroots organization that spent millions in 2020 to drive conservative voter turnout in key battleground states, questioned the validity of the exit polls. 

The Faith and Freedom Coalition released on Wednesday the results of an 800-voter survey that was conducted on Election Day by Public Opinion Strategies that found that 81% of self-identified evangelicals voted for Trump and only 14% voted for Biden. Faith & Freedom says that in 2020, evangelicals comprised 27% of the total electorate, an increase of 1% since 2016. The survey has a 3.46 percentage-point margin of error. 

In a press conference on Wednesday, Reed addressed the discrepancy between the poll his organization sponsored and exit polls. 

“We believe that the network exit poll is not as accurate as ours. We think that for two reasons. No. 1, for Donald Trump to have gotten 76% of the evangelical vote, he would be underperforming Mitt Romney. We didn’t see that in our data. We don’t see it in voter modeling. We know what share of that vote was in every battleground state. We know from surveys that we have conducted what percent they were going to vote for Donald Trump. I don’t believe the 76% number is believable.”

Reed contends that polling done in the battleground states show Trump winning 85% to 86% of the white evangelical vote in many of those states. 

“The math doesn’t add up,” he added. “You can’t be at 76% nationally when you are in the mid-80s in every state virtually that matters.” 

As for people of other Christian faiths, the preliminary exit polling shows that Trump’s support among Catholics and Protestants increased by about 12 percentage points.

The early exit polling data states that 62% of Catholics surveyed cast their ballots for Trump and only 37% voted for Biden. In 2016 exit polls, only 50% of Catholics voted for Trump. About 68% of Protestant/other Christian voters surveyed in the preliminary 2020 polling said they voted for Trump and 31% said they voted for Biden. In 2016, 56% of Protestants and other Christians said they voted for Trump, while 39% said they voted for Clinton. 

“The White Catholic numbers are all over the place,” Burge explained. “Just for reference, white Catholics were 59% for Trump versus 41% for Clinton in the two-party vote in 2016. Trump got 56% of the White Catholic vote when third parties were included. According to The New York Times exits, Catholics were 62% for Trump. And according to NBC exits, 66% of white Catholics were for Trump. According to AP VoteCast, the Catholic vote was 52% for Biden. Obviously, there's going to be some differences based on an all-white sample versus all races of Catholics. But even that can't explain the wild differences.”

Burge said it is too early to make pronouncements about how Catholics voted in 2020. 

“I think that they shifted: Trump lost ground in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Each state is between 20-25% Catholics,” Burge reasoned. “I can't imagine a scenario in which Trump gains 7 or 8 more points with Catholics, but then loses the state.” 

Exit polling also shows that Trump fared better with key racial demographics than he did in 2016. Among African American voters, exit polls show that Trump received about 12% support while Biden received 87%. In 2016, Trump won just 8% of the black vote while Clinton won 89%. 

Trump also picked up 4 percentage points with Hispanic voters, with 32% saying they voted for Trump in 2020. In 2016, Trump won 28% of the Latino vote. Biden faired just as well as Clinton did in 2016 by winning 66% of the Latino vote. 

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