The issue of abortion could be one of former President Donald Trump’s biggest weaknesses in the Republican primary — and Ron DeSantis is trying to take advantage of it. “He won’t answer whether he would sign it or not,” the governor of Florida said on Tuesday, referring to a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. As recently as last week, Trump was noncommittal about what kind of abortion restrictions he would support, and claimed in an interview on Monday that “many people in the pro-life movement” think a six-week ban — which DeSantis himself signed in April — is “too harsh.”
In the months since the 2022 midterm elections, where Republicans generally underperformed, Trump has been clear that he thinks the GOP’s hardline stance on abortion bans is responsible. But that’s putting him in a tricky position with white evangelical Protestants — a cornerstone of the Republican base that was central to his election in 2016 — and potentially opening up an opportunity for another GOP candidate to siphon religious conservative votes away from Trump. After Trump’s comments about the six-week ban, an influential anti-abortion activist said on Twitter that he was “abandoning pro-life voters.” In response, Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats tweeted that the Iowa caucuses were “wide open.”
Recent polling underscores that Trump may have to work to regain some evangelicals’ support, although he may already be making inroads. Surveys by Monmouth University conducted in February and March, for example, found that while DeSantis initially had a small lead over Trump among Republicans who identify as evangelical — 51 percent of evangelical GOP voters said they’d choose DeSantis in a head-to-head matchup with Trump, while 44 percent said they’d choose Trump — Trump may have started to consolidate more support among this group. In March, the two Republicans’ positions were essentially reversed, with 42 percent of GOP evangelicals saying they’d choose DeSantis and 51 percent saying they’d choose Trump. And in April, an Echelon Insights poll found that 59 percent of white evangelical Protestants (not just Republicans) said they’d support Trump over DeSantis, while only 37 percent said they’d support DeSantis. That’s a slightly wider gap than Echelon found in late February, when 51 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they’d vote for Trump, while 43 percent said they’d support DeSantis.
That trend is good news for Trump, but the numbers signal that a big chunk of evangelical voters aren’t sold on his reelection bid. What’s less clear is whether DeSantis or any of Trump’s other rivals have the power to consolidate enough evangelical votes to pose a serious threat to Trump as the primary goes on. Our analysis suggests that a possible weakness of Trump’s is among college-educated evangelicals, which may not be a big enough group to derail his candidacy. “There’s a very powerful emotional bond that’s been created between Trump and white evangelicals,” said Peter Wehner, a conservative Christian writer and commentator. “Many view him as their great warrior. It’s a bond that will be hard to break.”
For the past few months, prominent evangelical leaders have been refusing to throw their support behind Trump, saying instead that they want to wait out the primary to see what happens. Some evangelical heavyweights have even appeared to line up behind Trump’s opponents. That might seem like an ominous sign for Trump, but it actually isn’t a huge surprise — many evangelical leaders were slow to jump on Trump’s bandwagon back in 2016, only to wholeheartedly embrace his candidacy once it was clear that evangelical voters were consolidating behind him in the primary.
But this time, elite evangelicals’ hesitancy about Trump’s reelection bid is also a clue about where his support among the rank and file might be weakest. More educated evangelicals, in particular, have a dimmer outlook on the former president. According to a survey conducted in March 2022 by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life, only 51 percent of white evangelical Christians with a bachelor’s degree had a favorable view of Trump, compared to 77 percent of white evangelicals who did not attend any college. White evangelical Christians as a whole also held a favorable opinion of Trump (67 percent).
This mirrors a broader trend among GOP voters during the early stages of the 2024 primary. From the earliest days of Trump’s political career, his support among white working class voters was notable. Trump’s rhetoric addressed fears of declining social standing, and cultural displacement in ways that deeply resonated. Throughout Trump’s presidency, Republicans without a college degree have largely remained loyal, while college-educated Republicans are more open to an alternative. A recent Morning Consult poll found that college-educated potential GOP primary voters are 20 percentage points less likely than GOP voters without a college degree to say that Trump has the best chance of beating President Biden in 2024 — and they were also more likely to support DeSantis. Even in 2020, there were signs that Trump had weaker support among college-educated white evangelicals: According to Pew, they were 10 points less likely to support him than those without a degree (87 percent versus 77 percent), and roughly twice as likely to support Biden (21 percent versus 12 percent).
Of course, educational divides among Republicans will play out differently in the GOP primary than in a general election. But there are a few reasons why this divide could persist throughout the primaries. First, Trump’s recent wobbliness on abortion may disproportionately impact his standing with college-educated white evangelicals who prioritize the issue more. In a poll conducted by the Survey Center on American Life late last year, 44 percent of college-educated white evangelicals said abortion was a critical issue for them compared to 34 percent of those without a degree. DeSantis, by contrast, recently signed that six-week abortion ban — a clear attempt to shore up his anti-abortion credentials with the GOP base. Other evangelicals may be willing to give Trump some latitude on the issue, though, Wehner said, particularly since he appointed three of the justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade last summer. “As long as [Trump] doesn’t come out and say he’s pro-choice, I don’t think it’ll be a big issue for most evangelicals,” Wehner said.
Trump’s practice of making explicit racial appeals — and drawing on racial resentment — may also contribute to the growing educational divide among evangelicals. At an Arizona rally last year, Trump falsely accused liberals of rationing medical care to white people. These types of messages typically resonate more with white Americans without a college degree, including white evangelicals, than they do with degree holders. In a 2020 AEI survey, white evangelical Christians who did not attend any college expressed greater concern that white people are being subjected to racial discrimination. A narrow majority (53 percent) believed “white people” experience a lot of discrimination in the U.S. today, a view shared by only 38 percent of college-educated white evangelicals. Notably, white evangelical Christians were split on the question, regardless of their educational attainment, with 48 percent agreeing and 51 percent disagreeing.
Finally, the education divide among white evangelical Christians is also a social divide. White evangelical Christians without a college degree have far less political diversity in their social connections, meaning they are less likely to have friends, colleagues or family members who are critical of Trump. Among self-identified Republicans, a majority (57 percent) of white evangelicals who did not go to college report they have no close friends or family members who voted for Biden, according to a 2021 poll by the Survey Center on American Life. Among college-educated white evangelicals who are Republican, markedly fewer (34 percent) report having no Biden supporters in their immediate social circle.
So it seems fairly clear that Trump does have a weak spot with college-educated evangelicals. But it might not be a fatal weakness in the GOP primary. Evangelicals are much more likely to identify as Republican generally than they did 10 years ago — according to an analysis of Gallup polls, 79 percent of evangelicals identified as Republicans in 2022, compared to 64 percent in 2012. But college-educated evangelicals are a much smaller slice of that demographic — they only represent about one-third of white evangelical Christians as a whole.
Their early support for DeSantis is still a potential problem for Trump, though, if DeSantis is able to keep them in his column — particularly in an early GOP primary that features a Republican electorate with large numbers of evangelicals, like Iowa or South Carolina. Trump has remained popular with the GOP base in part because they haven’t been offered a compelling alternative. Some evangelicals may be looking — but it’s not clear if they’ll find it in 2024.