Why Hillary Clinton Bombed With White Evangelical Voters

As with Wisconsin, she didn’t show up.

Hillary Clinton Praying
Hillary Clinton prays with Merdean Gales of St. Louis after addressing the New Baptist Covention on Jan. 30, 2008, in Atlanta.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

In 2008, candidate Barack Obama sat down for an interview during the primary with the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. He spoke about his conversion, his longtime church membership, and his belief in “the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” He said abortion should be less common and that “those who diminish the moral elements of the decision aren’t expressing the full reality of it.” The interview was a valentine to evangelicals, and inside it read: “I’m listening.”

This election cycle, Christianity Today made multiple attempts to request an interview with Hillary Clinton, according to Kate Shellnutt, an editor there. The campaign never responded. Of course, campaigns turn down interview requests all the time. But the Clinton campaign was the only one that didn’t reply at all. And this wasn’t the only sign this year that the Democratic candidate had no interest in speaking to evangelical Christians. She spent little energy explaining her views on abortion to them and little time talking about religious freedom. She didn’t hire a full-time faith outreach director until June and had no one focused specifically on evangelical outreach. She didn’t give a major speech to the evangelical community and never met publicly with evangelical leaders. Religious publications reaching out to her campaign with questions were frequently met with silence. Some evangelical insiders are now asking: Why didn’t Hillary Clinton even try to get us to vote for her?

White evangelicals make up about one-quarter of the electorate, a huge group to ignore in an election that turned out to be won by very narrow margins in a handful of key states. In the end, according to exit polls, only 16 percent of that cohort voted for Clinton, compared with Obama’s 26 percent in 2008 and 20 percent in 2012. Trump’s share of the white evangelical vote, 81 percent, exceeded that of Mitt Romney in 2012 (78 percent), John McCain in 2008 (74 percent), and George W. Bush in 2004 (78 percent). “Not to have anyone reaching out to a quarter of the electorate is political malpractice,” the Obama campaign’s 2012 faith outreach director, Michael Wear, told me. Wear, whose book Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned from the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America will be published in January, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post recently that argued that the “simple difference between Obama’s two presidential campaigns and Clinton’s 2016 campaign is that Obama asked for the votes of white evangelicals and Clinton did not.”

“I find it dumbfounding and incredibly stupid that the Democratic Party and her campaign didn’t reach out to try to engage a segment of the white evangelical community,” said Ron Sider, a theologian and founder of the progressive Evangelicals for Social Action. “Apparently they thought they could win without us.” Obama met with Sider and other Christian leaders in 2008 to discuss issues, including the rights of faith-based organizations to make hiring decisions based on their religious commitments, an issue of increasing importance to conservative Christian organizations that exclude employees who affirm same-sex relationships. This year, Sider said, “there was an effort to reach out to Hillary and have that conversation, and that effort went nowhere.”

Trump said in June, “We don’t know anything about Hillary in terms of religion.” It was a typically Trumpian statement, false but nonetheless tapping into a gut feeling shared by many Americans. In fact, Clinton is a lifelong Methodist, a one-time Sunday School teacher for whom the Methodist saying “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can” became a kind of unofficial campaign slogan. When she arrived in Washington as first lady in 1993, she joined a women’s Bible study, read Christianity Today, and talked at length to journalists about her faith. But when she delivered an unscripted speech in the midst of the health care reform push soon afterward, one in which she mused that “we are part of something bigger than ourselves,” she was widely mocked.* Stung, she became less willing to ad-lib on spiritual topics in public. After almost a quarter-century on the national stage, 43 percent of Americans have come to believe she is not a religious person.

White evangelicals have reliably voted Republican since the 1970s, of course. But there were signs before the election that this year might have been different. Donald Trump, a twice-divorced, biblically illiterate casino mogul who bragged on tape about assaulting women, was a uniquely repellent candidate for social conservatives. Many Christian leaders openly detested him. Southern Baptist policy head Russell Moore spent the entire election lambasting the Republican in op-eds, interviews, and tweets. Several popular female evangelical authors spoke up loudly against him. The conservative magazine World polled a group of about 100 evangelical influencers about their voting plans over the course of the primary and general election, and found almost no enthusiasm for Trump; even after he secured the nomination in May, half of them said they would never vote for him under any conditions. World itself called for Trump to step aside after the Access Hollywood tape emerged in October. The Clinton team, by the way, ignored all of World’s inquiries over the course of the campaign.

Even as evangelical “influencers” derided him as an immoral charlatan, Trump just kept showing up. He appointed an evangelical advisory board. He invited hundreds of Christian conservatives to New York for a meeting at which he promised to appoint anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court. At Liberty University, he vowed to “protect Christianity” from threats ranging from the decline of “Merry Christmas” to religious violence in the Middle East. (Bernie Sanders also spoke at Liberty during the campaign; Clinton did not.) He sat for interviews with Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and with conservative Christian columnist Cal Thomas, who asked him about the character of Jesus.

Many of these efforts looked buffoonish at the time. Trump told Thomas, awkwardly, that Jesus is “somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind.” When he announced that the Bible was his favorite book, he couldn’t resist bragging about The Art of the Deal. In an attempt to explain his confusing history of opinions on abortion, he said he favored “some form of punishment” for women who seek them—anathema to most anti-abortion activists. But in a divide that mirrors the gap between the GOP establishment and its voters, the evangelical leaders who pointed out these missteps failed to sway their supposed “base.” In retrospect, the nitpicking missed the point: Christian-ese may not have been Trump’s native language, but at least he was trying to speak it.

Clinton, by contrast, sounded like a woman who hadn’t taken the Rosetta Stone software out of the shrink wrap. Yes, she nodded to her Methodism in her speech at the Democratic National Convention, and the campaign pushed an emotional clip of her listening to a prayer from backstage there. She also made several appearances at black churches, a reliable source of Democratic votes.But she spent little time talking about her own faith on the campaign trail, and even less time speaking explicitly to believers about theirs—the kind of uncomfortable reach that might have peeled away religious voters looking for a reason not to vote for Trump. “It was decidedly different than past campaigns,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College in Illinois—and a prominent observer of evangelical culture. She paid little lip service to religious freedom, for example. He pointed out that Clinton’s first campaign rally last year was held at New York’s Four Freedoms Park, named for President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” but she managed only to mention three freedoms there—ignoring freedom of worship. “I know a lot of evangelical leaders,” Stetzer said, “and I would say at the end of the day, most who voted for Trump probably voted for Trump begrudgingly, because they felt they had no other choice.”

Clinton’s stance on abortion was even more off-putting to many evangelicals. In 2007, Clinton was still echoing her husband’s mantra that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare—and by rare, I mean rare,” as she told a pro-life pastor at a faith forum on CNN. This was the conciliatory language adopted by Democrats during the ’90s culture wars. But by this year, Clinton had dropped the “rare”and was accentuating her support for overturning the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from being used to pay for most abortions. The shift played well with Clinton’s base, but it did nothing for the many moderates and even conservatives looking for an excuse to vote for her this year. When I was reporting on young pro-life activists this fall, I had a hard time finding any who supported Trump—but almost all of them mentioned Clinton’s Hyde Amendment rhetoric as a reason they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for her, either. Stetzer pointed out that her first speech after winning the Democratic nomination this summer was at a Planned Parenthood event. “It was as if she was trying to alienate evangelicals,” he wrote in an email, “and it worked.”

Clinton’s failure to reach white evangelicals can’t all be blamed on her. There are serious institutional challenges to faith outreach within the Democratic infrastructure. Faith outreach hires tend to come relatively late in the campaign cycle, for example. Progressive equivalents to groups like Ralph Feed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition are often interfaith, and therefore treated skeptically by theological conservatives. The Clinton campaign’s faith and heritage outreach director, John McCarthy, who shared responsibilities for evangelical outreach, told me that he’s now working with party leaders to advocate for a permanent faith council within the Democratic National Committee. “The biggest lesson Democrats need to learn is that faith voters aren’t going anywhere,” he said.

Still, it didn’t have to be this way. McCarthy called Clinton “one of the most theologically grounded candidates since Carter.” She’s certainly more devout than Trump, who told an audience in Iowa last year that he has never sought forgiveness from God. And the evangelical population is increasingly attuned to some traditionally Democratic issues, including the environment, LGBT issues, and racial justice. Clinton would have had a decent affirmative case to make to them, if only she had tried. Yes, it still would have been a tough sell, and maybe she would have shaved off only a few thousand votes here or there. But this year, that’s all she needed. And even by making the effort, she could have shown that Democrats still want those votes and believe they deserve them.

Monday morning quarterbacks have had plenty of time by now to assess Clinton’s failures. Why did she spend so little time in Wisconsin, for example, where Trump won by fewer than 30,000 votes? The nature of a campaign is that time and resources are limited, and in a race that hinged on such a small number of votes, just about any demographic can claim in hindsight that they deserved more attention. But when it comes to the evangelical vote, it’s hard not to daydream about what would have happened if Democrats had just shown up. In 2008, the candidate knew that half the job of running for office was simply asking people for their votes. “Evangelicals have come to believe often times that Democrats are anti-faith,” Obama told Christianity Today then. “Part of my job in this campaign, something that I started doing well before this campaign, was to make sure I was showing up and reaching out and sharing my faith experience with people who share that faith.”

Correction, Dec. 15, 2016: Due to an editing error, a quote from a Hillary Clinton speech was rendered as “We are all part of something bigger than ourselves.” According to a transcript of the speech, she said, “We are part of something bigger than ourselves.” (Return.)