The 2016 election season has been full of surprises. Virtually no one expected that Trump would be the Republican nominee, that a self-identified democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders would perform so well against institutional powerhouse Hillary Clinton, or that political royalty Jeb Bush would flop so completely that he’d be left literally begging for applause.
But among the more interesting peculiarities of this campaign is the seemingly impossible reality that Clinton, a Democrat and a committed Methodist, is now the most overtly religious candidate left running for president. And even more shocking, many right-wing Christians are openly contemplating refusing to vote for the famously religiously illiterate Trump, waffling between staying home on Election Day and voting Democratic for the first time in their lives.
This strange development has been examined by a number of writers, but was given robust treatment this week in a lengthy article by Alan Noble, a conservative Christian and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture.
“I have heard evangelicals speak about choosing to vote for the ‘least of two evils’ during past presidential elections, but in retrospect, such hand-wringing feels quaint,” Noble writes at Vox. “For conservative evangelicals like me, the 2016 election really is a choice between two evils.”
Noble ultimately argues that his fellow evangelicals shouldn’t vote for either party this year, but this kind of the political uncertainty is the stuff of dreams for Democratic strategists, many of whom are chomping at the bit to cleave off voters from a demographic long thought to be impenetrable for progressives. Still, even with Clinton’s passionate faith, can the presumptive Democratic nominee — a self-avowed progressive who is stalwartly pro-choice and supports LGBT rights — really win members of the Religious Right?
Here are three possible strategies.
Make a play for sporadic religious Democrats
For all the complaints about Hillary Clinton being “fake” or “opportunistic,” there is at least one part of her personality that few doubt: her Christianity, specifically her devotion to the United Methodist Church. Clinton has successfully leveraged her religion for political gain in the past, working networks of Pentecostal voters in the South to secure victory for her husband Bill during his various campaigns for governor of Arkansas. Clinton has been more reticent about her faith in recent years, however, possibly because some progressive primary voters — especially the 24 percent of Democrats who claim no religious affiliation — are openly antagonistic towards candidates who mix faith and politics.
But the general election is an entirely different beast, and Clinton stands to gain by contrasting her impressive religious bona fides — which include the uncanny ability torecite Bible verses on command — with Trump’s infamous inability to discuss even basic elements of the Christian faith.
To achieve this, Clinton could target so-called sporadic religious Democrats, or theological conservatives who occasionally vote politically progressive. These are the 18 percent of white evangelicals overall who identify as liberal according to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), whose numbers can shoot up to as much as 27 percent if you include those who “lean” Democratic.
Pew also notes that 17 percent of evangelical millennials — readers of Sojourners magazine,RELEVANT, and other more centrist religious publications — say the same. They, although slightly better at civic engagement than other millennials, are still historically terrible at voting regularly. But young conservatives have voted in droves against Trump in this year’s GOP primaries, and millennial evangelicals could show up for a Democrat on Election Day in November if inspired by a candidate that speaks to their spiritual sensibilities. They could also be nudged by endorsements from obvious surrogates such as social justice crusader Shane Claiborne — who has already protested a Trump rally — and working to garner support from less vocal political voices such as author and pastor Rob Bell, who is close with famously popular Barack Obama endorser Oprah Winfrey.
This would be a minor bump at best, and simply talking about faith won’t win over more hardline conservatives. But for spiritual traditionalists already primed to enter the big Democratic revival tent, Clinton could finally be their great evangelist.
Tackle conservative religious voters head-on
Trump often boasts about his surprising support among white evangelicals, pointing to his victories with the historically Republican religious bloc in various states. But Trump’s theological conservative support harbors a deep, possibly exploitable secret: the evangelicals who back him are mostly people who don’t go to Sunday service very often, whereas more churchgoing evangelicals typically don’t care for him at all. This is largely why the twice-divorced business mogul has been condemned by a veritable who’s-who of evangelical leaders, such as Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, former RedState.com editor-in-chief Erick Erickson, and the editorial staff of the Christian Post.
Granted, none of these leaders are likely to encourage their supporters to back Clinton. They are far more likely to take Noble’s advice and just stay home or write-in another candidate (say, Jesus Christ himself), much like Christian fundamentalists did after enduring a series of defeats in the 1930s.
“Conservative evangelicals must not concede to Trump simply to stop Clinton from being elected,” Noble writes. “In fact, the best way forward for conservative evangelicals is to refuse to submit to a Trump nomination and to focus on down-ticket elections, local government, and community flourishing.”
But it’s still possible for Clinton to convert (pun intended) a few of the conservative faithful — especially in battleground states — by appealing to them directly in two ways. First, she could harp on the shared values of faith, making a special push for evangelical women, a group who — like roughly 70 percent of women in America, according to Gallup — are often unnerved by Trump’s derogatory remarks about the opposite sex. Second, she could push on issues where evangelicals and liberals have unexpected commonality: according to PRRI, for example, a majority of white evangelicals believe that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to become citizens provided the meet certain requirements.
It’s also feasible that Clinton could rack up one or two endorsements (either explicit or implied) from so-called institutional evangelicals, pressuring more centrist members of the Religious Right such as Rick Warren, a politically savvy megapastor who hosted a forum at his church in 2008 for both Barack Obama and John McCain. And at this point, Clinton could win simply by stepping back and allowing Russell Moore and other more stalwart evangelicals to urge their followers to stay home.
Such efforts could go a long way towards running up the score in conservative, churchgoing areas of battleground states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Colorado, and Florida.
Win (enough) Mormons to achieve victory in Utah — yes, really
Okay, this is admittedly the least likely scenario of the three. Mormons are the most reliably Republican religious group in America, and deeply-Mormon Utah hasn’t voted for a Democrat since LBJ. And while members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) are relatively progressive when compared to other subgroups of the Religious Right on issues such as immigration and LGBT workplace protections, they still overwhelmingly oppose things Clinton supports, such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and environmental regulations.
But while Mormons aren’t big fans of Clinton, they arguably dislike Donald Trump way, way more. Mormons prefer a more conventional kind of Republicanism, which is partly why Trump was crushed in the Utah primary, coming in third with a piddly 14 percent compared to Sen. Ted Cruz, who won by a landslide with 69 percent.
And Mormons don’t just dislike Trump as a candidate, they also dislike his policies. In addition tobroad Mormon support for immigrants in general, both the governor of Utah and the LDS church itself have issued statements condemning The Donald’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration, recounting the time the U.S. government once tried to stop Mormon immigrants from entering the country. And when former Utah senator Bob Bennett — who was both Mormon and a Republican — lay dying earlier this year, he had one final wish: apologize to any nearby Muslims for Donald Trump.
Anti-Trump vitriol isn’t enough to secure a win for Clinton the Beehive State, of course. Even the most robust Mormon outreach campaign in history couldn’t shift the party allegiances in a state that is arguably the most Republican in the union.
Yet there is still a way for Clinton to turn Utah blue. A March Deseret News/KSL poll found that Clinton could defeat Trump in the state, with 38 percent of voters saying they would likely back a Democrat compared to 36 percent who would still probably turn out for a Republican — and a solid 16 percent said they wouldn’t vote at all. What’s more, a June poll from Gravis Marketing reported that Clinton could also be aided by a strong third party candidate: the survey found that Trump would only barely edge out Clinton in a head-to-head contest, winning 29 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 26 percent, with 16 percent supporting Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and 29 percent saying that would back “other.”
A three-percentage-point difference is totally surmountable through campaign outreach, especially with 29 percent of voters effectively unsure of who to support. As such, Clinton would do well to keep an eye on the LDS faithful, and playing to significant Mormon populations in battleground states such as Nevada and Arizona could also go a long way.