Trump's faithful: 2020 tests his ties to white evangelicals

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FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2020 file photo, faith leaders pray with President Donald Trump during a rally for evangelical supporters at the King Jesus International Ministry church in Miami. Trump's bond with white evangelical voters has long sparked debate. But misunderstandings persist about his support from a Christian voting bloc that favored the GOP long before he took office. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

NEW YORK, NY – White evangelical support for President Donald Trump has sparked debate for years -- particularly this winter, with his impeachment trial looming. But for all the focus it commands, uncertainty continues to surround Trump’s bond with a religious constituency that has long leaned GOP.

Trump won a clear majority of white evangelical Protestant votes in 2016, and about 8 in 10 of that group approved of his job performance in an AP-NORC poll conducted last month. But those evangelicals’ alignment with the Republican Party predated Trump and has risen steadily since 2009, according to data from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Given that Trump has not greatly outperformed his GOP predecessors with white evangelicals, why has his presidency drawn outsize attention to a relatively small religious bloc? It's partly because conservative evangelical leaders have amassed notable influence in Trump's administration. But another reason the relationship is scrutinized is that Trump's political vulnerability could grow if more white evangelicals sour on him over perceived moral missteps.

“Their support for Trump just doesn’t match the story they’ve been telling about themselves since their evolution as a kind of active political group among conservatives,” said Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, an independent Washington-based nonprofit.

The prospect of white evangelicals defecting from Trump in greater numbers is an appealing one to his critics, including the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump Republican group that last week tried to undercut his evangelical appeal in a video that asked whether he is “the best American Christians can do.” Democrats also have grounded some arguments against Trump in moral values as they court voters of faith, including evangelicals.

Mike Madrid, a California-based adviser to the Lincoln Project, said that white evangelicals have been the strongest element of Trump’s base but are starting to show signs of weakness.

“That’s literally the only voter segment that he is holding onto,” Madrid said. “We’re going right at it.”

But challenging Trump’s hold on white evangelicals who have proven stalwart conservatives since the Reagan era may require flawed assumptions about their decision-making.