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Fight for evangelical voters could be crucial in North Carolina

In a hotly contested battleground, the Trump camp seeks to shore up voters of faith while Biden hopes to peel off enough to make a difference.
Image: Vice President Mike Pence attends Sunday Worship Service at Alliance Bible Fellowship in Boone, NC
Vice President Mike Pence attends Sunday Worship Service at Alliance Bible Fellowship in Boone, NC., Nov. 1, 2020.Hannah McKay / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Shannon Dingle, a Christian and a mother of six from Raleigh, North Carolina, says she voted for a presidential candidate who supports abortion rights for the first time four years ago.

Now, in 2020, she is among a critical bloc of voters that Joe Biden's campaign has been targeting to try to cut into President Donald Trump’s overwhelming advantage with white evangelicals.

“I used to be that single-issue voter who was pro-life,” Dingle told NBC News. “I’m a suburban mom, and I’m tired of Trump speaking for me as a suburban mom, as if that means I agree with him.”

Both campaigns are trying to get the most from evangelical voters in the waning hours of the campaign, though with two very different messages. While the Trump campaign has urged evangelicals to focus on policies, Biden’s allies are trying to peel off some of the president’s key supporters by asking them to judge the candidates on their personalities and character.

“Trump’s character is not some set-aside that can be separated from his leadership as president,” said Michael Wear, who started the Not Our Faith Super PAC to campaign against Trump in the two weeks prior to Election Day. “It affects the policies he’s advancing.”

Meanwhile, Ryan Higgins, co-founder of Non-Essential, a pro-Trump get-out-the vote platform for Christians, said his message to any of the president’s supporters who are wavering, or thinking about not casting a ballot in Tuesday’s election, is to focus on his record.

“Occasionally, you still do hear the talk of somebody saying, ‘Well, I don't know if I'm gonna vote,’” Higgins said. “And for those people that do feel that way, we're just spreading the messaging of vote policy, not personality.”

The Republican ticket on Sunday made its appeals to the state's evangelical voters as the president was joined that night at his rally in Hickory by the Rev. Franklin Graham, who told the crowd “I would like to take a second to pray for this man.” Earlier, Vice President Mike Pence attended church in Boone, arriving at the Alliance Bible Fellowship with a Bible in hand.

For his part, Biden is using his Catholic faith to make his appeal to the faithful. At a rally in Michigan on Saturday night, the former vice president advocated for religious freedom, declaring that “the right to worship is a fundamental right in America.” And in an op-ed article in Christian Post on Thursday, Biden wrote that “loving God and loving others” are at the core of his faith, and while in public service “these values have kept me grounded in what matters most.”

While Trump maintains strong support among evangelical voters, Biden is trying to peel off some of those who backed the president or who may have committed to not voting for the president but haven’t decided to back the Democratic nominee.

Trump can ill afford to lose any of the support he had in 2016 given how narrow his margin of victory was in key battleground states, and his supporters are focused on minimizing defections from evangelicals and persuading any of those who might be unsure how they’ll vote.

In North Carolina, a must-win state for Trump, that’s particularly the case. White evangelicals in North Carolina support Trump over Biden by 82 percent to 17 percent, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll. Revving up turnout among those voters is critical for Trump — a new NBC News/Marist survey released Friday showed a 6 percentage point in the state for Biden.

Overall, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 78 percent of white evangelicals intend to cast ballots for Trump, compared with 83 percent who said in August that they would vote for the president.

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In order to energize those voters and keep them in the GOP fold, Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, says that in the final days of the campaign, evangelical leaders are amplifying Trump’s anti-abortion rights position and record on Supreme Court nominees — and Biden’s refusal to rule out expanding the number of justices on the high court.

The nomination of recently-confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in particular, “has reminded them why they supported Donald Trump in the first place,” Reed said.

“There’s the small but important number of undecided voters among the electorate overall and voters of faith,” he said.

At the center of the battle between pro-Trump and pro-Biden evangelicals is whether abortion rights is their top issue when evaluating candidates. According to a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll, white evangelical Protestants are the only religious group in which a majority, 63 percent, cited abortion as a critical issue. No other religious group has a majority saying abortion is a critical issue, according to the poll.

“The wrestling within the evangelical community is: are we going to be a single issue, religious voting bloc?” said Serene Jones, a self-described progressive Christian and president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York. “Abortion as a single-issue topic no longer, I think, has the power to compel that it did in 2016 as a single issue.”

Doug Pagitt, the executive director of Vote Common Good, is spending the final days of the campaign trying to convince voters who’ve decided not to support Trump to take another leap and vote for Biden.

“It’s a two-step dance for many. And they’ve only taken the first step so far, so there’s room to move those voters,” he said. “The question is, will they move to Biden?”

Religious leaders who back Trump hope not. They are trying to appeal to those voters’ convictions on issues like abortion.

“Most Christians feel like they have representation in the White House right now more so than they have in years past and arguably ever,” Higgins said.

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council and a Trump supporter, said he’s making the same argument as he travels around the country, telling evangelicals not to look at the president’s tweets or what they might see as “his abrasive personality” but his policy record.

“Unlike what we have grown accustomed to, this administration didn’t just promise and talk about it, they actually delivered,” he said.