Engaging the Election: What Predicts Evangelical Approval/Disapproval of Trump?

Author’s note: During the US election season, we will be bombarded with a chorus if not cacophony of political coverage, punditry, and even misrepresentation of the presidential campaign. To help us navigate this noisy time, I will be presenting a series of empirical snapshots on how evangelical Christians perceive the two presumptive nominees for president. By “letting the data speak,” I will present a nonpartisan analysis of the social and political attitudes of our fellow Christians. While the findings should challenge our preconceptions and convictions, it is not an endorsement or critique of either candidate. Instead, my hope is that it spurs greater conversation and discussion about how our faith can and should translate into our perceptions and participation in the presidential election. See the first post in the series, on how to read the polls, here. This is the second post, on what predicts Evangelical approval or disapproval of Trump. For the third post, on what predicts Evangelical approval or disapproval of Clinton, click here. For the fourth post, on Engaging the Election: The Lesser of Two Evils for Evangelical Voters?, click here.

What social demographics and political attitudes predict evangelicals’ feeling towards Donald Trump? And do these factors also shape non-evangelical perceptions of Trump as well?

To begin to answer these questions, I analyze survey data from the 2016 National Election Study (described here). Compared to media polls that use a multiple-choice approval or disapproval question, the National Election Study asked a representative sample of Americans to rate how they feel about the candidates on a 0-100 scale. Feeling scores from 0 to 49 reflect disapproval, 50 is neutral, and scores 51 to 100 indicate approval. This allows researchers to examine not just the directionality of respondents’ attitudes (if they approve or disapprove) but also the intensity of favorability (with scores closer to 0 and 100 representing stronger feelings of disapproval and approval respectively).

First, I identify what factors predict how evangelicals differ in their perceptions of Trump. I find older and white evangelicals have more positive attitudes toward Trump than younger and non-white evangelicals. Moreover, those who more strongly believe there is a lot of discrimination against whites are also more approving of Trump.

In my analysis, I use multivariate regression models that include 27 potential predictors grouped into four categories: social demographics (gender, age, race, education, marital status, family income, church attendance), political attitudes (party identification, political ideology, interest in politics, voting in 2012, preference for principled candidate, approval of President Obama, approval of Hilary Clinton), social attitudes (approval of Muslims; perception of discrimination against black people, white people, women, and Christians; economic confidence; economic opportunity; intensity of American identity), and preferences about specific policies (immigration, religious exemptions in business, ISIS, global warming).

The results (full statistical results here) identify five key predictors of evangelicals’ approval of Trump. The other predictors do not have statistically significant effects on feeling towards Trump. Among the social demographic measures, age and race predict approval. Evangelicals over 49 years old (the median age of evangelicals in the study) approve of Trump with an average feeling score of 54. By contrast, evangelicals younger than 50 disapprove of Trump; they give Trump an average score of 44. Disapproval of Trump is strongest among millennial evangelicals (18–25 years old) who give Trump an average score of 31.

Predicting Approval of Trump among Evangelicals
Social Demographics Age (older)


Political Attitudes Lower interest in politics

Disapproval of President Obama

Social Attitudes Greater perceived discrimination against white people
Policy Preferences None

Evangelicals’ approval of Trump is also predicted by race. White evangelicals approve of Trump with an average feeling score of 59 while non-white evangelicals strongly disapprove of Trump with an average score of 29. Similarly, evangelicals who perceive more discrimination against white people approve of Trump (with an average score of 60) while evangelicals who believe there is less discrimination against whites disapprove of Trump (with an average score of 46).

Finally, two types of political attitudes predict evangelicals’ feelings towards Trump. First, evangelicals who are politically disinterested approve of Trump (with an average feeling score of 57); by contrast, politically engaged evangelicals disapprove of Trump (with an average score of 47). Second, evangelicals who are more disapproving of President Obama are more approving of Trump.

To contextualize these findings, I use the same multivariate regression model to identify if similar factors also predict approval of Trump among non-evangelicals. The results reveal that variation in how non-evangelicals perceive Trump is motivated by a different set of factors.

Predicting Approval of Trump among Non-Evangelicals
Social Demographics None
Political Attitudes Republican

Disapproval of President Obama

Social Attitudes Disapproval of Muslims
Policy Preferences Send troops to fight ISIS

Age and race strongly predict approval among evangelicals, but do not predict non-evangelicals’ perceptions of Trump. By contrast, among non-evangelicals, party identification predicts feeling but not among evangelicals. Disapproval of President Obama predicts more positive feelings toward Trump among both groups.

Different social attitudes also predict perceptions of Trump. Among evangelicals, perceptions of greater discrimination against white people predict more positive attitudes toward Trump but among non-evangelicals, greater disapproval of Muslims predicts more positive attitudes. Finally, whereas no policy preference predicts approval among evangelicals, non-evangelicals who favor sending troops to fight ISIS are more approving of Trump.

As a robustness check, I compare the magnitude of statistically significant predictors identified by the evangelical and non-evangelical models. I find that the effects of age, race, and political disengagement are statistically different. This implies that being older, white, and politically disengaged more strongly predicts positive perceptions of Trump among evangelicals than non-evangelicals. This is further evidence that at least when it comes to attitudes about Trump, evangelicals and non-evangelicals are motivated by different sets of social, culture, and political motivations.

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Joshua Wu

Joshua received his PhD in Political Science from The Ohio State University in 2015. His research examines the intersection of religion and politics, especially foreign policy, through statistical analyses of historical public opinion polls and survey experiments. In his dissertation, he examines how presidential use of religious rhetoric during foreign policy crises affects foreign policy public opinion. He currently works at a market research firm in Rochester, NY where his wife is a pediatric resident at the Golisano Children's Hospital. They welcomed baby Evelina at the end of 2015 and attend Grace Road Church. Joshua is originally from Taiwan and has also lived in Singapore, Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and London. His research website is joshuawu.com.

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