Why Didn’t Hillary Reach Out to White Evangelicals?

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Clinton at Messiah College in 2008

Two days before the 2016 presidential election I wrote a piece in the Harrisburg Patriot News titled “Here’s What Hillary Clinton Has To Do To Win Over Evangelicals.” In this piece I argued that Clinton has said very little to win over white evangelicals concerned with abortion and religious liberty.

My piece was written very late in the election cycle.  At the time I wrote it was clear that Clinton was not really trying to win over white evangelicals during the campaign.  As journalist Ruth Graham writes in a fascinating piece at Slate, Clinton seemed to almost ignore white evangelicals.

Here is a taste of Graham’s piece:

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.”

Read the entire post here.

Clinton campaign did not seem to learn anything from John Kerry’s failed 2004 presidential run.  In the wake of Kerry’s loss, the Democrats found religion. They turned to progressive evangelical Jim Wallis to help them develop a faith-based strategy.  Wallis, who had been toiling for faith-based progressive causes in relavative obscurity during the 1980s and 1990s, suddenly became a religious celebrity.  His 2005 book God’s Politics became a best-seller and unofficial blueprint for the Democratic appeal to religious voters.  During the 2008 primaries Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama made appearances at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California and at Messiah College.  In 2008, Obama won nearly 25% of the evangelical vote.  No such forums took place in 2016.

Clinton’s failure to reach out to white evangelicals continues to baffle me, especially when this election was so close.

4 thoughts on “Why Didn’t Hillary Reach Out to White Evangelicals?

  1. Well, we can’t know, of course, and maybe it would have been worth a shot. Bill had some success with that. But Hillary’s support from those kinds of Bill supporters already fell through the floor, and I suspect her campaign looked into that and found nothing there to encourage them. It’s a much different America now than it was even in 2008, let alone the 1990s.

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  2. Agree with everything here, John. But I wonder if there were anti-Trump people of a moderate political persuasion who could have turned her way. The goal was not convince the Christian Right to support her. The goal was to convince anti-Trump people that she was not as bad as Trump and thus worthy of a “hold-you-nose” vote. In a close election like this I think this is worth thinking about.

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  3. Perhaps her calculation was simply the reverse of Barry Goldwater’s in the 1960s, when he excused his cultivation of the segregationist vote with “You have to go hunting where the ducks are.” At this point, there’s very few ducks waiting for Hillary among white evangelicals.

    I just read David Kuo’s Tempting Faith, and it’s an enlightening read. Kuo is baffled by Bill Clinton’s election in 1992; the event shakes his faith. He considers it plausible that Clinton is the “wicked leader” representing “God’s judgment on our morally loose nation.”

    In Tennessee he talks with a store owner who’s at first suspicious of him, but warms a bit when he finds Kuo isn’t working for the administration. “He just looked me in the eyes and said, ‘That Hillary Clinton. She’s the Antichrist.’ I thought about the appropriate response. I didn’t really think she was the Antichrist. I thought her husband was. Nevertheless, I found myself saying, ‘Yes sir, I believe she just might be.'”

    David Brooks has spent the last eight years trying to convince himself white evangelicals that say these things don’t really mean them, they’re just being provocative. Which is why he was so blind-sided by Trump. He didn’t know his own party’s base. The rank and file mean it. And, as Kuo shows throughout the book, the party’s elites, for their part, are happy to encourage it. So here we are. I know evangelicals with good Ph.D.s who are personally some of the sweetest people you could meet, until Hillary came up in conversation, and among the least controversial comments you’d hear was “She should be in jail.”

    With a lot of work–if you could get them to listen–you might get some to admit she didn’t kill Vince Foster and isn’t the Antichrist, but you’re not going to ever see them vote for her.

    So I doubt there was any advantage for Hillary in trying to reach out to folk like this. She’s too much of a known quantity, and people’s feelings about her have been set in stone for decades now. Perhaps the question is rather, should the Democrats be more open-minded, and try to reach out? If they had wanted to go that route, I think they’d have had to conclude she couldn’t be their candidate.

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  4. My sense of it would be that the return on that investment would have been very small. Whereas Obama was something of an unknown in 2008, and there was an issue with his Christian pastor (remember that?), Hillary has been vilified by evangelicals for 20 years.

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