By Aaron Earls
Evangelicals seem ready to cast their ballots in the 2020 election. Nine in 10 evangelicals by belief are registered to vote and few are undecided about their presidential choice.
A new survey from Nashville-based Lifeway Research conducted Sept. 9-23 finds President Donald Trump with a sizable lead over Democratic nominee Joe Biden among likely voters with evangelical beliefs. Deep divides, however, persist among evangelicals across ethnic lines.
Overall, 61% of evangelicals by belief plan to vote for Trump and 29% for Biden. Other candidates garner around 2% combined. Fewer than 1 in 10 (8%) are undecided.
Evangelicals by belief are also twice as likely to identify as a Republican (51%) than a Democrat (23%). One in 5 (20%) say they are independent.
“Voting for or against an incumbent president is a more certain situation for voters,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Fewer Americans, including those with evangelical beliefs, are on the fence than at this same point in 2016.”
Voting plans for Americans without evangelical beliefs are almost the mirror opposite of their evangelical counterparts, with Biden holding a commanding 56% to 33% lead over Trump.
President Trump’s advantage among evangelicals, however, comes primarily from white evangelicals, among whom he leads Biden 73% to 18%.
African Americans with evangelical beliefs overwhelmingly plan to vote for Biden (69% to 19%). Among American evangelicals of other ethnicities, however, Trump has a 58% to 32% lead.
Compared to a previous Lifeway Research survey conducted in the months leading up to the 2016 election, more white evangelicals say they plan to vote for Trump this time (73% to 65%). However, more also say they plan to vote for Biden than said they planned to vote for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee four years ago, (18% to 10%).
While almost a quarter of white evangelicals were undecided or supporters of a third party in 2016, few say the same in 2020. Only 2% back a third-party candidate this year, compared to 8% four years ago. And while 16% were undecided in 2016, that number fell to 7% this year.
Individuals with evangelical beliefs who identify with the two largest political parties plan to be loyal to their party’s candidate. Among Republicans with evangelical beliefs, 91% say they are voting for Trump. Eight in 10 Democrats with evangelical beliefs (81%) support Biden.
“Different ethnic groups are more attuned to specific failures of our country and of specific candidates,” said McConnell. “One’s ethnicity and political party are more powerful in predicting the vote of someone with evangelical beliefs than their shared religious convictions alone.”
Among likely voters who identify as Christian and attend church at least once a month, support for Trump and Biden is evenly split (46% to 45%). As with evangelicals, ethnic divides are also present among churchgoers.
White churchgoers back Trump 59% to 30%, while African American churchgoers are solidly behind Biden (86% to 9%). The former vice president also has a sizeable—though smaller—lead among Hispanic churchgoers (58% to 36%) and churchgoers of other ethnicities (49% to 36%).
Key election issues
Improving the economy and fighting the pandemic are the top characteristics registered voters say they are looking for in a presidential candidate. Evangelicals agree but are much more likely to also point to abortion and religious liberty as factors.
A majority of registered voters say an ability to improve the economy (72%), slowing the spread of COVID-19 (58%) and maintaining national security (55%) are important factors in deciding their vote.
Close to half say the same about addressing racial injustice (49%), personal character (48%) and the candidate’s position on immigration (48%).
In the survey, which began prior to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, a third (33%) say likely Supreme Court nominees are an important factor. Similar numbers point to the candidate’s ability to protect religious freedom (32%), their position on abortion (31%) and their position on the size and role of government (30%).
Trump voters are more likely than Biden voters to say the economy (82%), national security (67%), immigration (62%), religious freedom (49%), abortion (44%), Supreme Court nominees (42%), and the size and role of government (40%) are important issues in determining their vote.
Biden voters are more likely than Trump voters to point to COVID-19 (75%), racial injustice (68%) and personal character (66%).
When asked the single most important issue in determining their vote, 26% of registered voters point to the economy, 22% say slowing the spread of COVID-19 and 15% say personal character. No other issue garners more than 8%.
Among evangelicals by belief registered to vote, improving the economy (22%) and slowing COVID-19 (16%) remain the top issues, but the candidates’ position on abortion (11%), and ability to protect religious freedom (11%) are more likely to be the top priority compared to those without evangelical beliefs.
Fewer evangelicals (8%) than other Americans (16%) say the personal character of the presidential candidate is the most important issue in deciding their vote.
“Most evangelicals are not single-issue voters,” said McConnell. “Eighty-nine percent of those with evangelical beliefs selected more than one important issue that is influencing their vote. Like other Americans, their top concerns reflect the current recession and pandemic, but more than 1 in 10 with evangelical beliefs will vote for the candidate they think will protect religious freedom.”
Lifeway Research also asked registered voters, “Who do you hope your presidential vote benefits the most?” More than a third (35%) say people nationwide who are like them, and 22% say people our country has failed.
Fewer say they hope the ones who benefit the most from their vote are themselves and their family (17%), people nationwide who are different from them (10%) or people in their community or region (7%).
Evangelical voters are more likely than other registered voters to say they hope their vote most benefits people nationwide who are like them (41% to 34%).
Registered voters with evangelical beliefs are also less likely to say they hope their vote most benefits people our country has failed (15% to 24%).
“Few Americans with evangelical beliefs will be casting a ‘Good Samaritan’ vote on election day,” said McConnell. “Instead, most will vote to benefit those like them or their own family.”
Those voting for Trump are more likely to say they hope their vote most benefits themselves and their family (21% to 14% of Biden voters) and people nationwide who are like them (43% to 31%).
Biden voters are more likely to say they are casting their vote in hopes that it most benefits people who our country has failed (32% to 10% of Trump voters).
Aaron Earls is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.
The online survey of 1,200 Americans was conducted Sept. 9-23, 2020 using a national pre-recruited panel. Quotas and slight weights were used to balance gender, age, region, ethnicity, education and religion to more accurately reflect the population. The sample includes an over-sample of Americans with evangelical beliefs providing additional reliability for breakouts of this group. Totals for all Americans reduce these responses to their correct proportion through weighting.
The completed sample is 1,200 surveys. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error from the panel does not exceed plus or minus 3.2%. This margin of error accounts for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
Comparisons are made to a Lifeway Research survey conducted Sept. 27 – Oct. 1, 2016, with a completed sample of 1,000 surveys and a 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1%.
Likely voters are defined as those registered to vote and plan to vote. Christians are those with a religious preference of Catholic, Protestant, Non-denominational Christian, or Orthodox. Evangelical beliefs are defined using the NAE Lifeway Research evangelical beliefs research definition based on respondents’ level of agreement with four separate statements using a four-point, forced choice scale (strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree). Those who strongly agree with all four statements are categorized as having evangelical beliefs:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.