Throughout the Republican primaries, Donald Trump wasn’t a typical candidate when it came to directly courting key groups of voters within the party. That absence of targeted messaging was especially seen when it came to appeals toward the evangelicals who have traditionally played a prominent role in key states.
Trump was sure to make overtures – he attended church in Iowa (Presbyterian, his denomination), and delivered an address to Liberty University, the institution founded by tJerry Falwell. “I love the evangelicals,” Donald Trump said at campaign rallies. “I think the evangelicals really do get me.”
Now as he turns to the general election, Trump faces a complicated relationship with this sizable voting bloc as he tries to consolidate and unify the Republican Party for a fight against a common foe – Hillary Clinton.
And his efforts are further complicated by his rhetoric in recent weeks, including his attack on a federal judge because of his Mexican heritage.
On Friday the presumptive Republican nominee is scheduled to headline the annual Faith and Freedom Conference, a conference of the largest Christian voter mobilization organization in the country. And less than two weeks later, he will attend a meeting with 500 faith leaders in New York City.
While the former setting is an opportunity for Trump to talk to rank-and-file Christian conservatives and the latter is a chance to meet with a large group of Christian leaders, both come as the evangelical vote could be more split – or dormant – than any recent presidential election.
Trump has made it difficult for some evangelicals to get on board. He has said he Planned Parenthood provides beneficial services, he previously was pro-choice, he opposed the North Carolina bathroom law – before he supported it, and he said he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness.
But the latest attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel was too much for Samuel Rodriguez, the head of the largest Hispanic Christian organization working on behalf of as many as 15 million Hispanic evangelicals in the U.S., the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Council.
Rodriguez has been critical of Trump in previous media interviews because of his labeling of Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, but it wasn’t until the last few weeks that Samuel Rodriguez decided to ditch Trump.
“Samuel Rodriguez is perplexed,” Rodriguez said speaking in third person. “I am speechless. I am dumbfounded in attempting to explain why Donald Trump continues to bring by Mexicans in a negative way.”
He also said: “I will not be endorsing Hillary or Donald” and he has no idea who he’ll vote for in November.
Rodriguez is not the only Christian leader concerned with Trump.
Bob Vander Plaats, the head of The Family Leader in Iowa backed Texas Senator Ted Cruz in the primaries and is not a supporter of Trump, said that Trump’s biggest problem with evangelical voters is trust.
“Can we trust him to lead on pro-family issues? Can we trust him to surround himself around the right people who are principled conservatives?” Vander Plaats rhetorically asked. “They know with Trump they are rolling the dice.”
And Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told the Christian Broadcasting Network that Trump a “lost person” for whom he will pray.
Evangelicals are overwhelmingly Republican, with 56 percent identifying themselves as part of the party according to Pew Research. And nearly half of Republican primary voters – 48 percent – identify as evangelical.
And this year they split their votes, with many supporting other candidates like Cruz in a crowded field during the early contests. As the choices narrowed, Trump began to coalesce their support but not entirely -- winning an average of 40 percent of evangelical support throughout the primary season, according to an NBC News analysis.
Now that the general election looms, there are fewer choices for many socially conservative voters who prioritize issues of abortion and religious liberty and can’t fathom voting for a Democratic candidate who promotes choice and marriage freedom.
The real risk for Trump and the GOP is that evangelical voters could stay home, and that’s what worries Johnnie Moore, the spokesperson for My Faith Votes, a non-partisan organization focused on engaging the 25 million Christians who did not vote in 2012. Tim Head, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Conference, said that while evangelicals are not a monolithic voting bloc, they do want to hear from Trump that the government won’t “invade our houses of worship.”
“For any that are concerned about either personal faith or policy matters of faith, … they just want someone who will restrain an overzealous overreaching federal government,” Head said.
My Faith Votes, chaired by former presidential candidate and current Trump supporter, Ben Carson, has partnered with a coalition of Christian groups, United in Purpose, are hosting the meeting in New York in two weeks to expose Trump to a large swath of church leaders.
“Mr. Trump has the opportunity to speak to them,” Moore said.
Even evangelicals who are supporting Trump raise concerns.
Ronnie Floyd, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, “I don’t’ appreciate the comments and I don’t understand the comments, but at the same time, you’re going to find that most evangelicals ... have to understand that people are going to say things that are not always right.”
Bruce LeVell, one of the black pastors who got behind Trump early in the primary, said Trump’s rhetoric can come off “a little strong.”
“We don’t 100 percent agree with everything, but you can take 90 percent and outweigh the 10 percent,” LeVell said in a recent interview.
What can help to shore up evangelical support for Trump is his vice presidential pick.
But Trump has received some early, and faithful support. He won the backing early in the primary of Jerry Falwell, the head of conservative Liberty University, in a move that surprised many.
And Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Conference, said Trump’s journey is appealing to many.
“Evangelicals, because of their emphasis on the conversion experience, are already prequalified by temperament and theology to accept a convert,” Reed said.
Despite Rodriguez’ anger with Trump’s rhetoric, he plans to attend the New York meeting because he wants to hear what Trump has to say.