By Aaron Earls
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Almost all Protestant pastors plan to participate in the 2020 election, but around a quarter still haven’t decided who will get their presidential vote.
In the latest election survey, Nashville-based Lifeway Research found 98% of Protestant pastors in the U.S. say they plan to vote in the presidential election.
When they cast their ballot, 53% of pastors likely to vote say they plan to do so for Donald Trump. Around 1 in 5 (21%) say they are voting for Joe Biden. A similar percentage (22%) say they are still undecided. About 4% say they are voting for a different candidate.
“Pastors vote like any other American,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “The large number of pastors who are still undecided may reflect difficulty in finding a candidate who aligns with their overall beliefs. Also, some pastors are intensely private about their political preferences and may prefer to respond ‘undecided’ than to even confidentially share their voting intentions.”
Compared to 2016, the president has much higher levels of support among pastors this year.
In a 2016 Lifeway Research survey, 40% of pastors were undecided midway through September. Around a third supported Trump (32%). Hillary Clinton, the Democratic party nominee, garnered 19%, while Libertarian Gary Johnson had 4%.
For the 2020 election, support for the Democratic and third-party candidates remains similar, but around half of the number of undecided pastors in 2016 now say they will vote for Trump.
“There were a lot of unknowns in 2016, including Trump being an outsider candidate and little sense of how others would respond to supporting his candidacy,” said McConnell. “Pastors know their options for 2020, and a majority are willing to vote for him.”
Among self-identified evangelical pastors, Trump’s support is similar to that of evangelicals across the country. Almost 7 in 10 evangelical pastors (68%) say they plan to vote for the president, compared to 20% of mainline pastors. In a recent Lifeway Research survey, 6 in 10 Americans who hold evangelical beliefs (61%) pick Trump over Biden (29%).
Among African American pastors, 61% choose Biden, while 6% say they plan to vote for Trump. Younger pastors, age 18 to 44, are the least likely age demographic to back the president for reelection (41%).
Denominationally, Pentecostal (70%) and Baptist pastors (67%) are more likely to vote for Trump than pastors in the Restorationist movement (49%), Lutherans (43%), Presbyterian/Reformed (24%) or Methodists (22%).
The same percentage of Protestant pastors in the U.S. and American evangelicals by belief identify as Republican (51%). Around 1 in 6 pastors (16%) say they are a Democrat, while 23% see themselves as an independent.
Both major party presidential candidates retain the support of pastors who identify with their party. More than 4 in 5 Democratic pastors (85%) plan to vote for Biden. Similarly, 81% of Republican pastors support Trump.
Unlike Americans with evangelical beliefs, Protestant pastors say abortion and religious liberty are two of the most important issues driving their presidential choice this November.
When asked which characteristics of the candidates are important in deciding how to vote, clear majorities of pastors say the candidate’s position on abortion (70%), their ability to protect religious freedom (65%) and their likely Supreme Court nominees (62%) are key factors.
Close to half point to an ability to improve the economy (54%), ability to maintain national security (54%), personal character (53%), their position on immigration (51%), ability to address racial injustice (51%) and their position on the size and role of government (47%).
Around a third (35%) say the candidate’s ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 is important.
Pastors also selected the single issue most important to determining their vote. Only the candidate’s position on abortion (25%), their personal character (22%), ability to protect religious freedom (16%) or likely Supreme Court nominees (10%) are seen as the primary issue by at least 1 in 10 Protestant pastors.
In a recent Lifeway survey of all Americans, voters with evangelical beliefs are most likely to point to an ability to improve the economy (22%) and an ability to slow the spread of COVID (16%) as the primary issue in deciding their presidential vote. Fewer say abortion (11%) or religious freedom (11%) are their primary issue.
“A microcosm of the national debate about COVID-19 has been directed at pastors this year as they have made decisions about necessary precautions for their own church,” said McConnell. “Despite the drastic changes the pandemic has caused to ministry and church practices, most pastors give much higher priority to other national concerns than a candidate’s ability to slow the spread of this virus.”
Evangelical and mainline pastors have different values they believe are important in this election.
Protestant pastors who identify as evangelical are more likely than mainline pastors to see as important in determining their vote: abortion (82% to 38%), protection of religious freedom (72% to 41%), likely Supreme Court nominees (70% to 53%), maintaining national security (58% to 47%) and the size and role of government (52% to 36%).
Mainline pastors, on the other hand, are more likely than their evangelical counterparts to say addressing racial injustice (73% to 44%), the candidate’s personal character (73% to 46%) and slowing the spread of COVID-19 (55% to 28%) are a key part of their presidential choice.
In terms of the most important issue in determining their vote, evangelical pastors are more likely than mainline pastors to say abortion (33% to 5%), while mainline pastors are more likely to point to personal character as the most vital issue in this election. (44% to 14%).
The mixed mode survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors was conducted Sept. 2 to Oct. 1, 2020 using both phone and online interviews. For phone interviews, the calling list was a stratified random sample, drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Quotas were used for church size. For online interviews, invitations were emailed to the Lifeway Research Pastor Panel followed by three reminders. This probability sample of Protestant churches was created by phone recruiting by Lifeway Research using random samples selected from all Protestant churches. Pastors who agree to be contacted by email for future surveys make up this Lifeway Research Pastor Panel.
Each survey was completed by the senior or sole pastor or a minister at the church. Responses were weighted by region and church size to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,007 surveys (502 by phone, 505 online). The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.4%. This margin of error accounts for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.