Former President Donald Trump still commands the support of a significant share of conservative Christian voters, Reuters interviews with evangelical leaders and opinion polls show, but a window of opportunity remains for a challenger to peel some of that support away.
Evangelical voters are key to winning Iowa, which holds the first the presidential nominating contest of the 2024 election early next year, and other Republican early-voting states such as South Carolina.
The stakes are high. Strong evangelical support early in the Republican primary could give a challenger a chance to strike a blow against Trump, the front-runner for the nomination, and slow his momentum.
But Trump, who has been divorced twice and is now under indictment as part of an alleged scheme to pay hush money to a porn star, has shown resilience with evangelicals, who credit him for a series of conservative policy victories including the US Supreme Court’s decision overturning federal abortion protections.
Trump won 76% of the white evangelical vote in 2020, down from 80% in 2016, according to Edison Research exit polls. About one-third of US adults identify as born-again or evangelical Christians, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in November 2020.
At the moment, an opening exists for another candidate such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump's closest rival, to pull some evangelical votes away from the former president, interviews and opinion polls show.
But there are signs that there may not be much time before those voters coalesce behind Trump.
Pastor Robert Jeffress, an influential evangelical who heads a 14,000-member church in Dallas, earlier this year said he was uncommitted in the 2024 Republican primary. But Jeffress told Reuters this week that he is now solidly behind Trump, saying that he has found DeSantis, who has yet to formally announce a presidential bid, to be “lackluster.”
“A lot of people really don’t know him,” Jeffress said. “There is nothing he has done lately to sway evangelicals.”
Trump seems to be gaining ground with evangelicals, according to national polling by Monmouth University. In a March poll, Trump edged DeSantis among evangelicals in a two-way matchup 51% to 42%, a nine-point improvement for Trump from the month before.
A Des Moines Register poll of Iowa voters in March also underscored Trump's continued popularity among evangelicals, with 58% of them reporting a favorable assessment of the former president, though 39% viewed him unfavorably and 3% were unsure.
Bill Bolin, an evangelical pastor in Howell, Michigan, who made headlines in 2020 by refusing to close his church to comply with state health regulations at the start of the pandemic, said his congregation is divided over the way forward.
“A lot of people are hoping it’s Donald Trump and a lot are hoping it’s somebody else,” he said. “I think it’s split right now.”
Trump is credited by evangelicals for nominating Supreme Court justices who helped overturn the constitutional abortion safeguards of Roe v. Wade and for moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
But pastors who spoke to Reuters said that with abortion no longer a pressing federal issue, evangelicals now are increasingly animated by issues surrounding transgender athletes and gender identity.
“That is the issue that will drive evangelicals to the polls” in large numbers, Jeffress said.
An aide to DeSantis declined to comment. A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to requests for comment.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, a devout evangelical who may soon launch a presidential bid, and Senator Tim Scott, who is exploring a run, will headline the list of attendees at a presidential forum on Saturday in Iowa sponsored by a conservative nonprofit group, the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.
The gathering is traditionally an important stop for Republican presidential candidates, although this year DeSantis, who was invited, will not be going. Trump will participate, but only by video link.
DeSantis instead is scheduled to travel to Iowa in May to attend a fundraiser held by US Representative Randy Feenstra.
Bob Vander Plaats, a longtime evangelical leader in Iowa, said he doesn’t yet see any “galvanizing” around Trump and believes the evangelical base is “exceptionally wide open” to hearing from all the candidates.
Prominent evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, have said they are not endorsing Trump or any other candidate at the moment as the race moves forward.
Vander Plaats said evangelicals will consider whether Trump can prevail next year after losing the 2020 election to President Joe Biden. He said some evangelicals were upset with Trump for blaming a lackluster performance by Republicans in the 2022 midterms on the party's focus on restricting abortion.
Vander Plaats said he was among those looking for someone new in 2024.
"I think America is ready to turn the page,” he said.
Presidential candidates such as Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum successfully leveraged the Christian vote in 2016 and 2012 in Iowa to score surprising victories against more established Republican contenders in the caucuses.
While DeSantis, a Catholic, has not been steadily courting evangelicals, his national book tour has included stops at the evangelical Liberty University in Virginia and Hillsdale College, a Christian school, in Michigan.
Last week, he signed a bill passed by the Florida legislature that bans nearly all abortions in the state, a measure backed by religious conservatives, although DeSantis has largely avoided discussing the ban publicly.
Tom Ascol, a pastor in Cape Coral, Florida, gave the invocation at DeSantis’ second inauguration in January and said he supports the governor over Trump.
“I don’t think President Trump is a principled man -- I think he was a great president,” Ascol said. DeSantis, he said, “seems to be a man of sincere faith.”