COLUMBUS — New polling data show evangelical Christian voters in Ohio overwhelmingly backed Donald Trump and he won a majority of mainline Protestants as well — support he received even though he has been married three times, had a child out of wedlock, bragged about groping women and says he hasn’t been to church in three years.
When dissecting Trump’s Ohio victory — which was confirmed last week when all 18 Electoral College members remained faithful to him — it’s clear large pockets of religious-oriented Ohioans liked enough about his policies to forgive less desirable aspects of his personality.
“Obviously, he said a lot of stupid things,” said Tabitha Huschilt, a freshman at Cedarville University. “But I felt that I was supporting his policies, more so than what he said.”
Post-election polling data from the University of Akron as part of the Your Vote Ohio project found 78 percent of evangelical Protestants and 54 percent of mainline Protestants voted for Trump for president. That largely mirrors the results from 2012, when those groups backed the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, in big numbers over President Barack Obama.
But although Republicans often draw hefty numbers from Christian conservatives, many people expected a less definitive result in 2016, in part because of Trump’s many controversial statements. He even tangled with Pope Francis over what it means to be Christian, yet 52 percent of Roman Catholic voters in Ohio picked him while just 41 percent voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton, the poll found.
“Trump did very well with evangelicals and well with other white Christians — Catholics and mainline Protestants. This was generally not expected,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “But overall, the religious lineup looks a lot like 2012. In terms of voting, the GOP is basically the party of white Christians and the Dems are the party of religious minorities and the non-religious.”
The Bliss Institute conducted the poll for a coalition of Ohio news organizations that collaborated on polling and other news coverage this year aimed at giving Ohioans a voice in the election process. The news organizations shared resources and worked together to shine a spotlight on the issues that matter most to Ohioans, including the economy, income inequality, immigration, trade, money in politics and negative campaigning.
Religion was not emphasized much by either candidate, though Clinton’s position on abortion may have doomed her with a group that professes deep religious convictions.
“No Republican presidential candidate has ever said that they would only nominate “pro-life justices” to the Court,” Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, said about Trump’s pledge during the campaign. “That cleared the path for those evangelicals on the fence with Mr. Trump due to some of his bombastic and offensive comments.”
“Evangelicals played their odds and won,” he said. “Now Mr. Trump has to deliver on that specific promise.”
Students at Cedarville, a private, conservative Christian college east of Dayton, tracked closely to the poll results. Some wrote in alternative names in protest, others voted for Trump — largely because they opposed Clinton on social issues such as abortion. None of those interviewed said they voted for Clinton.
Bonnie Higgins, a freshman from Harrison County, let out a big sigh when she admitted casting her ballot for Trump, even though he made “overtly degrading” comments about women.
“I had to,” she said. “I was more against Hillary than for Trump. I was worried about who was going to be appointed to the Supreme Court. I did not want Hillary to have that power.”
Brandon Smith, a freshman from Springfield, said he voted for Trump despite misgivings about his public statements. “The problem is he has a mouth — and a Twitter account,” he said. “His running his mouth is morally incorrect.”
‘I can’t support abortion’
Like other evangelicals at Cedarville, Daniel Ernspiker said he couldn’t support Clinton because she supports abortion rights.
“I can’t support abortion whatsoever,” the junior from Ashtabula said. “I think it’s a complete disregard for human life. I believe life starts at conception.”
Stephanie Cradduck, a senior from Cincinnati, said she talked with her parents and prayed about her decision before casting a ballot for write-in candidate Evan McMullin.
“I could not support either of the two major party candidates,” she said, describing Trump as hot tempered and “incredibly under-qualified.” But, she added, “It’s going to be OK. There are systems in place to restrict and limit his power.”
The poll showed support for Trump was strongest among voters who reported attending religious services regularly. Fifty-nine percent of weekly worshippers backed Trump while 54 percent of those who seldom or never attend services backed Clinton.
Trump himself is not a regular churchgoer. The New York Times reported in September that Trump admitted he hadn’t been back to Marble Collegiate Church in about three years. Trump had attended services there for almost 50 years and married his first and second wives there but told the Times that he wasn’t sure if he had ever formally joined the congregation.
Clinton’s Christian faith, on the other hand, began at a young age and continued into adulthood, according a CNN report this fall. She periodically attends Methodist services at a church near her home in New York.
Whatever the religious convictions of the two candidates, they took a back seat to other issues: Clinton’s emails, hacked emails of people close to her, an FBI investigation. In the end, Clinton’s unpopularity left her vulnerable — even to a candidate who seemed to make every mistake in the book.
During the campaign Trump, 70, personally attacked women, Muslims, Mexicans, a Gold Star family and others. He made oblique references to the size of his penis during a live televised debate. He appeared to mock the physical disability of a New York Times journalist.
Then, just weeks before Election Day, an Access Hollywood hot mic video from 2005 emerged. Trump, unaware his microphone was recording, can be heard bragging about kissing and grabbing women by the crotch without consent, saying his celebrity status allowed him to get away with it.
Trump apologized, attributing it to “locker room talk.” Although initial polls showed some damage to his campaign, it wasn’t as fatal as many thought it might be, and among some groups it didn’t seem to hurt him at all.
‘I felt that I was supporting his policies’
The University of Akron poll found that many Ohioans were uncomfortable with how women were discussed during the campaign, but evangelicals were less upset over it than some other groups.
More than 70 percent of non-religious voters and those of other faiths said they were uncomfortable with how women were discussed, but only about half of the evangelicals felt that way. Evangelicals were also more likely than other religious groups to have an overall favorable opinion of Trump — and an unfavorable opinion of Clinton.
About 69 percent of evangelicals said they viewed Clinton unfavorably.
“Once committed, evangelicals are hard to persuade otherwise,” Gonidakis said, adding that tipping the balance on the Supreme Court was a bigger factor than anything Trump said or did. “This voting bloc realized that this less than perfect candidate could deliver what was most important — a conservative court for a generation to come,” he said.
For many voters, personal faith and morality take a backseat to how a political leader will act on public policy questions, such as abortion and appointments to the Supreme Court, Green said.
“Religious voters of all kinds often face difficult choices because candidates do not align perfectly with their values,” said Green. “For example, Obama was a model of a traditional family man — which evangelicals believe in — but he was pro-choice on abortion and for same-sex marriage. Evangelicals did not vote for him in large numbers.”
Some students at Cedarville said they couldn’t in good conscience support Trump.
Ben Larsen, a junior from Texas, said Trump flipped positions on gun rights, abortion and other issues and was too closely associated with the “alt-right” movement to win his vote. He also said he believes Trump could end up starting a devastating trade war with other countries.
Jacob Calloway, a senior studying international relations at Cedarville, skipped voting entirely. Not out of laziness, he said, but out of a general unhappiness over the lack of choices.
“It was just kind of depressing, to be honest,” he said. “As a young person, I didn’t feel I could vote in this election.”
Reach Dayton Daily News reporter Laura Bischoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.