The mindset of the evangelical voter is one that’s hard to pinpoint.
They found former President Donald Trump, during his first run, perhaps a bit too crass for their liking. They questioned his commitment to Christianity, noting the history of his personal life. So they mostly voted for Texas Senator Ted Cruz, at least early on. Of course, they all fell in line post Super Tuesday, coalescing behind the GOP nominee.
But will Trump get lightning to strike twice? A key conference is underway in Washington DC hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition. In 2020, the conservative evangelical advocacy group had a revenue of $44 million. Certainly a lot of weight to throw around in the primary, should their members decide on a single candidate in the 2024 GOP primary race.
The conference also highlights key fault lines within the country. On Friday afternoon, just a handful of blocks away, President Joe Biden will be hosting a pro-abortion rights rally, where he will receive the endorsement of NARAL, the most well funded pro-choice organization in the US. Biden probably realizes abortion is a divisive issue, with Gallup poll noting that 55% of Americans are largely pro-choice.
But still, the coalition fights on, and they’re trying to get all the primary candidates to cement their position. They’ve been all over the place, trying to avoid giving a straight answer on the issue should they make it to the general election. On Saturday, Trump himself will be speaking. The evangelical voters will be looking to see if his commitment to the pro-life cause will remain. He blamed the GOP’s unimpressive 2022 midterm performance on the “abortion issue.” He openly acknowledges it’s a losing one for him in the general election. He also has proven himself to be moderate on the issue in this election go around. “The issue was poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother,” Trump said.
As for the other candidates? Even the most conservative ones have been all over the place. Take former Ambassador Nikki Haley, for example. Two months ago, she furiously promoted a town hall that was centered around the topic. You think it would be there where Haley would take a stand. She didn’t. “I won’t address every single question or angle, rather I aim to start a constructive conversation about where we go from here in our divided country,” she said at the event. Though later on, she called a federal abortion ban “unrealistic.” Certainly far from catnip to the voters of the religious right.
And South Carolina Senator Tim Scott? He was expected to be one of the most conservative candidates on the abortion issue. He said he is running a faith based campaign, highlighting his deep ties with the evangelical right. They helped get him elected. But even he ran away from making a solidified stance on the issue. A reporter tried to press him on whether or not he’d support a 15 week federal abortion ban. He just wouldn’t answer.
And Florida Governor Ron DeSantis? He’s generated some good will among religious voters for signing a 6 week abortion ban, one of the strictest in the nation. But even he, at first, seemed to want to run away from it. He signed the ban at 11pm on a Friday night, hoping it wouldn’t get much attention. But since then, DeSantis has said he was “proud” of the bill he signed as he commits to running to Trump’s right. Still, he wouldn’t commit to a potential federal ban. Trump commented on this, clearly casting himself as the more liberal candidate on the abortion issue. “If you look at what DeSantis did, a lot of people don’t even know if he knew what he was doing. But he signed six weeks, and many people within the pro-life movement feel that that was too harsh.”
So what does this all mean? Expect the committed ones to get some momentum here. Former Vice President Mike Pence is the only candidate enthusiastically committed to a federal ban. He had nothing to hide as he got up to podium, while voters watch the other candidates speeches to see if they’ll actually take a stand. Most likely they won’t, so don’t be surprised if Pence’s support ticks a couple points, putting him in striking distance for second place over DeSantis.
It will certainly be an interesting race to watch, with the Faith and Freedom Conference serving as the opening bell.