Ahead of the midterms, the Billy Graham Center Institute examined the most infamous statistic about faith and the 2016 election.


Over the past two years, few statistics have sparked as much debate both inside and outside evangelicalism as the fact that 81 percent of white evangelical voters picked Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Depending on your views, it’s either a sign of solidarity or one of compromise—a number wrought with opinions and commentary to the point where fact and fiction are blurred.

2017年1月、大統領就任の誓約をするドナルド・トランプ氏(写真:White House photographer)


The statistic has often been used in the media and in academia to represent the idea that all evangelical Trump voters were “all in” for everything that encompasses Trumpism. As Americans (both evangelical and non-evangelical) tried to understand one of the most polarizing and surprising elections in our country’s history, the 81 percent became the go-to narrative for many. It fit longstanding criticisms that evangelicalism had become over-politicized, under-discipled, and hijacked by some of its most belligerent elements.


In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, the Billy Graham Center Institute at Wheaton College worked with LifeWay Research to better understand the 81 percent and evangelicals’ political engagement. We polled 3,000 Americans in three categories: those who self-identify as evangelicals, those with evangelical beliefs, and those who neither see themselves as evangelicals nor hold certain core evangelical theological views (such as a belief in salvation through Jesus Christ alone).


Among other insights, the data reveal six key facts about the 81 percent statistic that are worth highlighting. [The institute and CT will feature more analysis in the coming weeks.]



Exit polls indicate 8 out of 10 self-identified white evangelicals who voted in the 2016 presidential election voted for Donald Trump. But given that 1 in 3 evangelicals in America today is non-white, identity is different than belief, and not every evangelical voted, the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College took a deeper look by surveying more than 1,000 white and non-white evangelical believers.


Unless specified otherwise, references to evangelicals in this study include only a multiethnic group of respondents classified as evangelical by belief according to the National Association of Evangelicals research protocol. See below for methodology.


The 81 percent fails to differentiate the motivations behind voting.


In every election, people can vote with varying levels of enthusiasm and confidence in their decision. In an election that was one of the most polarizing in recent history, voters were often more reluctant than enthusiastic about their preferred candidate. For example, the Pew Research Center found in June 2016 that while 78 percent of self-identified white evangelical voters planned to vote for Trump, 45 percent were mainly voting against Hillary Clinton and only 30 percent were voting for Trump himself.


In our survey, we asked, “Which of the following best characterizes how you thought about your vote?” Only half of evangelicals by belief characterized their vote as “voting for their specific candidate.” Across Clinton, Trump, and third-party voters, evangelicals were just as likely to be voting in favor of a specific candidate as for another reason. So, while the who did matter (and 1 in 3 evangelicals said their vote was against Clinton, Trump, or both), the what and the why mattered also.


In fact, many voters chose to look past a candidate as an individual to vote for a specific issue, platform, or party that they represent, seeing the candidates more like objects of representation than as individuals whose values and ideals fit theirs. A majority of evangelicals by belief (59%) agreed that their political support should be tied more to praising or criticizing specific issues rather than individual political leaders.


Put another way, many of Trump’s evangelical voters were not enthusiastic about him as a candidate.


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