White evangelical Christians and white Catholics went decisively for Donald Trump on November 8th, thereby propelling him to victory in a majority of the battleground states and the Electoral College tally. Roughly one quarter of all of those who voted on Tuesday were self-described white evangelicals and fully 81% backed Trump. Their votes were very important in such states as Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Ohio. 60% of white Catholics voted for Trump to only 37% for Hillary Clinton. Their strong support was crucial to his victories in such states as Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
That these kinds of voters preferred a thrice-married man who cannot be fairly described as morally traditional says something profound about their priorities. The American presidency was at first a mostly ceremonial office, with the president serving (except in wartime) as the national example-in-chief and not much more. With the emergence of the powerful modern presidency in the 1930's and '40's, the role of the president in the realm of what today we call public policy greatly expanded. White evangelicals and white Catholics who voted for Trump signaled that to them the higher priority is what he would likely do in the realm of public policy, rather than the example he has set in his own personal life.
Partly that choice stemmed from Donald Trump's very shrewd promise to appoint socially conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, a promise buttressed by Trump's release of a list of his top prospects to fill the current vacancy there. Those eleven candidates were hailed by social conservatives as likely to continue in the footsteps of former Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death earlier this year created that vacancy. The Court has been active in recent years in the areas of reproductive rights and marriage equality in ways deeply troubling to socially conservative white evangelicals and white Catholics. They want a Court that keeps cutting back on the legal right to abortion, and one that resists legal equality for gays and lesbians. Donald Trump has promised to appoint justices in the future who will do that, and in so doing won crucial support from socially conservative voters.
But there is more to this story than Trump's promises with respect to Supreme Court appointments. White evangelicals and white Catholics - older ones especially - appear to have responded positively to his overall campaign theme of "Make America Great Again." To them, that phrase implies a return to the kind of country and culture in which Trump grew up, which was more economically populist and morally traditional. That fairer and squarer America (as they see it) remains to many older white evangelicals and white Catholics not an anomaly but a norm to which the country should continue to aspire. Trump was believable as a messenger for that agenda in part because he is old enough to have personally experienced that earlier era. He was born in 1946 and so grew up during a time when there was much more national unity, and when the middle class was steadily expanding as a fraction of all households. Donald Trump won decisively among middle-class whites - the more morally traditional among them especially - because he consistently advocated recreating a society that worked better for them in some important ways.
A related factor was Trump's firmly stated praise for America's veterans and his pledge to rebuild the military. Many "greatest generation" veterans and their now middle-aged children responded very positively to that part of Trump's message. In the earlier time they remember, the U.S. military was something in which a much higher fraction of the population participated, and that was much more respected at home and abroad. Trump's pledge to restore the military's earlier, more central place in American life resonated strongly with many white evangelicals and white Catholics.
What remains to be seen is the extent to which Trump can deliver on these very ambitious and controversial promises. If he can, solid majorities of white evangelicals and white Catholics will likely continue to form two fundamental pillars of popular support for his administration.