“All the evangelicals I know have expressed chagrin, or concern, or heartburn, or some combination of the three about some of the president’s vocabulary and some of the president’s posturing toward those with whom he disagrees,” Richard Land, the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and a member of a group called Evangelicals for Trump, told me.
There isn’t much Trump can do about the larger demographic trends that have trimmed his base, but he can give evangelical voters reason to show up at the polls. In the final sprint to Election Day, Evangelicals for Trump is holding several “Praise, Prayer, and Patriotism,” events in battleground states. Past meetings featured the Florida televangelist Paula White and Alveda King, a niece of Martin Luther King Jr. A meeting at a Las Vegas hotel this summer drew hundreds of people—along with condemnation from the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, for violating COVID-19 restrictions limiting gatherings to 50 people.
For the faithful, Trump isn’t an obvious choice. As my colleague McKay Coppins wrote, Trump has privately mocked Christian leaders and derided certain religious rites and doctrines. But he’s also taken action that matters to evangelicals, capped by the hasty nomination of the newest conservative Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, whom he swore in Monday night. She is the third justice he’s installed on the high court, cementing a conservative majority that will decide cases on abortion rights, religious freedom, and other cultural issues long after Trump is gone. Trump is deploying “a very clever, cynical, and mostly successful strategy,” Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who supports Biden, told me. “He made a deal with American evangelicals. He said, ‘You tell me what you want and I will deliver it, and you will give me back what I want—and that’s your vote.’”
Holding rallies to recruit new voters
Democrats went through rounds of finger-pointing after Clinton’s defeat. Should Biden lose, a similar reckoning will begin anew. Already, some analysts point to inroads Republicans have made in voter registration as a potential problem.
At Trump rallies, campaign aides have been checking to make sure supporters are registered to vote. (Biden largely chose to forgo big rallies because of the pandemic). In Florida, the Democratic registration advantage is down to about 134,000 voters, out of a total of more than 14 million. By contrast, in the 2000 election, Democrats’ registration lead in Florida was 379,000. In Pennsylvania, Republicans have cut the Democrats’ registration lead since 2016 from 916,000 to 687,000, out of 9 million registered voters. That’s not a trivial difference. Four years ago, Trump won Pennsylvania by just 44,000 votes.
Sean Trende, a senior elections analyst at Real Clear Politics, cites the registration numbers along with Trump’s relatively high approval ratings on the economy as evidence that he could prevail. “If Trump does pull out the win or overperforms expectations significantly, we would look back at these types of things and say, ‘Yeah, it was there all along!’” Trende told me.
Trump wasn’t supposed to win last time, making it harder to believe that he may lose this time. “You have this gnawing feeling in the back of your head about how wrong everyone was in 2016,” Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist, told me. “When people this time suggest, ‘There’s no way Trump can win; look at the polls; it’s impossible’—I heard that exact same nonsense in 2016. We all lived it.”