Religious conservatives who are politically engaged are likely to vote for Donald Trump if he gets the GOP nod to take on presumptive Democrat opponent Hillary Clinton. But they’ll do it with reluctance – and more than a few voters who already plan to sit out the election.
In a survey by the American Culture & Faith Institute among a sample of SAGE Cons completed at the end of March, an election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would force these religious conservatives to side with the New York real estate magnate by a 70% to 2% outcome. While that is a substantial landslide for the Republican, it is also a lower level of support than religious conservatives typically give to the GOP nominee. (The group traditionally gives the conservative candidate in the race roughly 90% of its vote.) An unusually large share – 15% – say they will vote for another candidate, 6% say they will not bother to vote, and only 6% remain undecided at this early stage of the race.
Engaged but Hardly Enthusiastic
SAGE Cons – a group whose name stands for Spiritually Active, Governance Engaged Conservatives – are typically among the adults most likely to vote. The survey revealed that they remain intensely focused on and concerned about the election. Nearly nine out of ten (88%) said they believe the November election “matters a great deal” and 86% of them are already devoting “a lot” or “quite a bit” of attention to the 2016 presidential contest.
However, Mr. Trump’s candidacy is dampening that enthusiasm. His chief appeal to SAGE Cons is that they dislike him a bit less than Mrs. Clinton. Two-thirds of these voters (65%) said one of the two most important reasons they would choose Mr. Trump is that they dislike his opponent more than they dislike him. No other explanation was selected by at least half of the SAGE Cons to describe their motivation for supporting him in a race against Mrs. Clinton.
Further evidence of the group’s disappointment in the possibility of having Mr. Trump as their party’s nominee was evident in the feelings they expressed about his potential selection. Almost two-thirds of these politically and spiritually active Christian conservatives (63%) described themselves as “disappointed” by the prospect of Mr. Trump being their standard-bearer. Nearly half (44%) said they were “disgusted.” Only about one out of five said his potential nomination left them “enthusiastic” (21%) or “inspired” (18%).
Neither Trump Nor Clinton Profile Is Flattering
In an analysis of how SAGE Cons view Mr. Trump as a person and as a candidate, the profile was not flattering. Among the most common adjectives used to describe him were arrogant (77%), rude (61%), vague policies (53%), and bully (52%). The most positive attributes ascribed to him were tough (63%), fearless (52%), charismatic personality (46%), entertaining (46%), problem solver (45%), good negotiator (43%), and strong leader. Very few of the religious conservatives associated him with positive attributes such as honest (13%), caring (11%), trustworthy (10%), presidential (8%), a genuine conservative (4%), and highly ethical (4%).
SAGE Cons, by definition, are deeply spiritual, actively Christian people. While past surveys have shown that the segment is not interested in installing a theocracy, they are immensely desirous of voting for people of stellar character, which they perceive to be an artifact of a genuine Christian faith. It does not bode well for Mr. Trump that just 1% described him as having “godly character” or 1% describing him as a “devout Christian”. SAGE Cons are almost unanimously pro-life, but just 6% described the New York businessman as “reliably pro-life”.
Mr. Trump’s profile among SAGE Cons has clearly deteriorated since last September. An ACFI survey at that time found that twice as many SAGE Cons (27%) found him to be inspiring; his standing as a visionary has dropped from 25% to 18%; his image as a problem solver has declined from 50% to 45%; and his status as a genuine conservative has plummeted from an already-low 14% to a mere 4%. The sole bright spot for the candidate has been that more SAGE Cons now describe him as tough than was true seven months ago, moving from 52% up to 63%.
The ACFI survey also found that SAGE Cons have perhaps even less appreciation for Mrs. Clinton. Among the characteristics assigned to her were liar (93%), big government (84%), hypocritical (82%), typical politician (79%), incompetent (69%), and overly partisan (65%).
Part of the disappointment felt by SAGE Cons about Mr. Trump’s potential selection as the Republican nominee revolves around his potential to win in November. Only one out of every four (25%) described him as “electable.”
However, their hope remains (barely) alive due to the fact that his likely opponent is seen as an even worse option for the White House. Asked to assess how each of the major party candidates would do as president if elected, 40% felt Mr. Trump would do an excellent or good job as Chief Executive. Just 1% felt that way about Mrs. Clinton. In fact, SAGE Cons were more likely to describe her likely performance as President as “poor” by a five-to-one margin (78% versus 14%).
The Lesser of Two Losers
“This is a classic case of a group feeling it has to choose the lesser of two losers,” commented George Barna, who directed the research for ACFI. “For many months, SAGE Cons were excited about candidates such as Scott Walker, Ben Carson, and now they prefer Ted Cruz. If Mr. Trump receives the nomination, most SAGE Cons will vote and they will vote uniformly. However, their vote will not be for Mr. Trump as much as it will be against Mrs. Clinton. If this election were turned into a stage play, SAGE Cons would cast Mr. Trump to play Popeye’s bullying nemesis Bluto against Mrs. Clinton’s conniving depiction of Cruella deVille.”
Barna provided additional context for the SAGE Con disappointment. “This has been an unusual election season in that religious conservatives had at least eight candidates who reflected most of their core values. To see those candidates fall by the wayside, leaving Mr. Trump to possibly become their representative, is especially disheartening. It raises the question for them of whether there is any hope of ever again having a nominee who embraces their core values.”
“However, with the Ted Cruz candidacy still a mathematical possibility, they have not given up all hope,” Barna continued. “In fact, should Mr. Trump receive the nomination in Cleveland, and Mrs. Clinton get her party’s nod in Philadelphia, I would expect SAGE Cons to go through a time of grieving before slowly returning in the fall to coalesce around the Trump candidacy. These people are highly patriotic and consider voting to be a necessary practice of a good citizen. They have had to support candidates they disliked in the past and they will do so again as they carry out their duty as a citizen. But it is indisputably heartbreaking for them to do so after having so many candidates they liked eliminated through the nomination process.”
About the Research
The survey was conducted among 2,130 individuals who are participants in a longitudinal study of SAGE Cons. The survey was conducted online from March 15 through March 29, 2016.
Additional information about this and related research is accessible on the American Culture & Faith Institute website, located at www.culturefaith.com.
The study was conducted by the American Culture & Faith Institute, which is a division of United in Purpose, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. The mission of United in Purpose is to educate, motivate and activate conservative Christians related to the political process. The organization does not support individual candidates or political parties.
The survey respondents were individuals who were screened and surveyed in 2015 and invited to participate in a series of surveys during the 2016 election season. This was the second in that series of surveys. A sample of 4,800 people was randomly drawn from the larger base of consenting participants to respond to this survey. The response rate among those contacted was 44%. The results represent the views of SAGE Cons, not the general public from which they were drawn.
SAGE Cons are qualified as adults who are registered voters; conservative on political matters; have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior; are active in pursuing their Christian faith; and are actively engaged in politics and government. They represent about 12% of the national population.