MOUNT PLEASANT, South Carolina — Chris and Kimarie Nickels live in a modern loft with a view of shipping barges in this affluent1 suburb of Charleston, where 91 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white. He is an attorney and former city councilman; she is a nurse. One of the anchors of their personal, family and community life is faith — specifically their evangelical Christianity and their membership in Seacoast, a megachurch that looks more like a college campus, with a multiracial congregation and a dynamic rock- and country-music-inspired choir.
In February, in an interview on the day they voted in the state’s Republican primary, both made an emphatic point of saying they had refused to vote for Donald Trump.
“If you are an evangelical and a believer and not just someone who stops by on Sunday or maybe just Easter and Christmas,” said Chris, “I don’t see how you could even consider Donald Trump.” He voted for Marco Rubio. Kimarie voted for Ted Cruz because she believed he was the best chance to “stop a certain crazy train.”
But Trump easily won the South Carolina primary, and exit polls showed that among born-again or evangelical Christians, he beat the second-place candidate, Cruz, by 6 percentage points, a pattern that held true in much of the United States. Since then, his popularity among white evangelical Republicans has grown significantly, and now the group is one of his strongest bases of support. According to a June survey by the Pew Research Center, 94 percent of them would vote for Trump over Clinton in November.
Late last week, Cruz, who refused to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention, declared his support for the nominee, citing the Supreme Court as his principal reason. Even before Cruz’s announcement, the Nickelses shifted their positions, too. “I think Kimarie will put a clothespin on her nose and will vote for Donald Trump,” Chris said recently. “She sees this as a choice between undesirable and even more undesirable.” Chris himself was trying to decide between Trump and the Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson.
Like the Nickels family, many evangelicals were initially skeptical of Trump, possibly because of his multiple marriages and combative and often vulgar campaign style, particularly concerning women. In April, according to Pew, only 42 percent of white evangelicals backed him.
Evangelical voters changed their minds, according to R. Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, because they feel strongly about social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion and do not want Hillary Clinton to appoint Supreme Court justices.
“Trump speaks to the profound fears animating so many white evangelicals today,” Griffith said. “Above all, the fear that they and their values are being displaced by foreign, immigrant and Muslim forces as well as by domestic movements such as Black Lives Matter, gay rights, women’s rights and more.” Even among evangelical Christians not motivated by that sweeping set of concerns — and Chris Nickels, for example, praised South Carolina’s decision last year to stop displaying the Confederate flag — a change in the Supreme Court that would far outlast any presidential administration is incentive to vote strategically.
Griffith said a male Democrat might have fared better with Trump supporters, but “as a feminist supporter of what appear (to them) to be threatening values that will topple America, Hillary Clinton looks like the devil to them.” Feminists are among several groups (including Muslims, Latinos and blacks) that Trump supporters feel less favorably toward than either other Republicans or the public at large, according to research by political scientists Jason McDaniels and Sean McElwee.
Both Chris and Kim not only attend church services but also weekly prayer groups and Bible studies. Such regular attendance has been a key factor in signaling the political loyalties of Republicans. In April, only 34 percent of weekly churchgoing Republicans supported Trump, according to Pew. But now surveys show that nearly 90 percent of regular churchgoing Republicans support Trump.
As “values voters,” the Nickleses list the future of the Supreme Court as one of their top concerns, along with the economy and national security. Chris, a lawyer, opposes abortion but has a nuanced take on how to achieve such goals on social issues.
“Changing hearts in social issues is really important,” he said. “It can’t be legislated, I don’t think. You just create more division.”
By the final weeks of the campaign, the Nickelses were still torn, but their positions had shifted on Trump because of the Supreme Court concerns that a Clinton America would be worse than a Trump America. A key difference between Chris and Kimarie was their opinion about Johnson and the Libertarians. Both supported Johnson when they lived in New Mexico and he was the state’s Republican governor, and Chris remains more open to the Libertarian platform. But Kimarie is not considering Johnson because of his support for abortion rights and immigration reform.
On Monday, Chris said that both he and Kimarie would vote for Trump. They have become more comfortable with Trump over the last six weeks because “he has demonstrated good discipline and a level-headedness,” he said, and appointing a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was extremely important to each of them. Chris added that his support for Johnson has waned because of Johnson’s poor performance in the polls and his tendency to come across as an “oddball.”
The modern political role of the Christian right dates to 1979 and the founding of the Moral Majority, which helped form evangelicals into a cohesive voting bloc that was instrumental in the election of Ronald Reagan and subsequent Republican presidents. “We are fighting a holy war,” said the group’s founder, Jerry Falwell, in 1980, “and this time we are going to win.” The group disbanded in 1989, and in the 1990s, the Christian Coalition came to prominence as the premiere political champion of the Christian right in politics. But in 2016, no one group has as much power to shape the agenda of conservative evangelical voters as either of these two organizations did, which may explain why the voting group fractured among several candidates during the primaries.
South Carolina ranks 10th in the nation (tied with North Carolina) in the proportion of residents who identify as evangelical Protestants, according to Pew Center research. Thirty-five percent of the state’s residents self-identify as evangelicals, compared with 25 percent nationally. (Tennessee, at 52 percent, and Utah, with 7 percent evangelicals, are the top- and bottom-ranking states for the demographic.) Evangelicals (including those who describe themselves as born-again) are 36 percent of all registered voters and 45 percent of Republican-leaning registered voters. The percentage of Republican voters in South Carolina who are evangelicals is 50 percent, yet they cast two-thirds of the Republican primary votes in the state.
In the spring, Chris Nickels said the election divided the members of his church.
“In a small group, a men’s bible study, we’re just fine if we’re talking about, let’s say, the Apostle Paul,” he said. “But as soon as we sort of get into the current race, we divided very quickly. And so what we learned very quickly is to do what men always do, and that’s to avoid the subject.”
By September, he said that most of the evangelical Christians he knew, like most of those nationally, would be sticking with the Republican nominee. None of those in his circle, he said, would support Clinton, most are leaning toward Trump, and a small percentage — about 10 percent — would support a third-party candidate or just not vote.
UPDATE (Nov. 3, 2016, 1:15 p.m.): The number of evangelicals supporting Trump in April has been lowered to 42 percent from 44 percent after the source of the information, the Pew Research Center, changed its calculation.
The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast is also airing a three-part companion series on demographics and the election.