Christian nationalist ideology played an important role in helping Trump gain support during the 2020 election, according to a study published in the journal Politics and Religion. Survey results suggest that Christian nationalism helped convince Americans who had not voted for Trump in 2016 to do so in 2020 while discouraging previous Trump-voters from considering other candidates.
Donald Trump’s unexpected presidential win in 2016 left many people baffled. Since then, social scientists have carried out numerous research studies to identify factors that may have motivated Americans to vote for Trump. These studies unearthed a similar pattern of findings — for both the 2016 and 2020 elections, Christian nationalism was one of the strongest predictors of voting for Trump.
More recently, researcher Samuel L. Perry and his colleagues conducted a study to investigate the extent that Christian nationalism may have swayed voting decisions toward Trump in 2020. Specifically, they explored whether Christian nationalism may have helped Trump earn support from Americans who did not vote for him in 2016 while solidifying support from those who did vote for him in 2016.
The researchers analyzed nationally representative survey data from the second wave of the Public Discourse Ethics Survey (PDES), which was fielded in February 2020. For the current study, the final sample included 1,665 Americans — 579 of whom had voted for Trump in 2016, and 1,086 of whom had not voted for Trump in 2016.
Within the survey, participants indicated which candidate they had voted for in the 2016 election, selecting from seven options: Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Evan McMullin, Other, or did not vote. They also indicated who they planned to vote for in 2020, with the options of Donald Trump, the Democratic nominee, a third-party candidate, or would not vote. Respondents also completed a six-item measure of Christian nationalism.
While most participants did not plan on changing their voting behavior from 2016 to 2020, the researchers focused their analysis on subjects whose voting intentions did change. They then calculated the association between Christian nationalism and participants’ intent to change their voting behavior either toward or away from Trump.
Among participants who had not voted for Trump in 2016, the more they endorsed Christian nationalism, the higher their likelihood of planning to vote for Trump in 2020. Notably, this effect was much stronger among Americans who had either voted for a third party in 2016 or had not voted at all. Among participants who had voted for Clinton in 2016, Christian nationalism only increased their likelihood of planning to vote for Trump in 2020 at its most extreme levels. The study authors say this pattern of findings suggests that Trump’s appeals to Christian nationalism may have helped him draw support from Americans who were only weakly committed to a political party.
The results further revealed that, among respondents who had voted for Trump in 2016, as Christian nationalism increased, their likelihood of planning to vote for someone other than Trump in 2020 decreased. In other words, the more a participant endorsed Christian nationalist ideology, the less likely they were to plan to change their vote away from Trump in 2020.
Overall, the researchers say their findings suggest that Christian nationalism may have played a role in converting Americans into Trump voters in 2020. “While those on the far right would already vote for Trump regardless, and those on the far left would vote against him,” Perry and his colleagues illustrate, “Trump’s appeals to America’s religious heritage, threats against religious freedom, stoking fears of ethno-religious outsiders (Muslims), and promises of Supreme Court justices may have attracted the Americans in the moderate middle, many of whom—as Whitehead and Perry (2020) have recently shown—are often quite amenable to Christian nationalist ideology.”
The authors note that their findings are cross-sectional, and causal claims cannot be made concerning the relationship between Christian nationalism and voting behavior. However, the study did control for many potential confounds such as religious commitment and identification as a white born again or evangelical Christian.
The study, “The Devil That You Know: Christian Nationalism and Intent to Change One’s Voting Behavior For or Against Trump in 2020”, was authored by Samuel L. Perry, Andrew L. Whitehead, and Joshua B. Grubbs.