Supporters of Donald Trump’s campaign have recently employed an unorthodox tactic to secure additional votes in Pennsylvania and Ohio – forming a super PAC to mobilize Amish voters.
The aptly named Amish PAC has already purchased billboard and newspaper advertisements in in an effort to appeal to Amish voters.
But will the Amish vote for Trump in 2016? My research with Donald Kraybill provides some guidance on this question.
Do the Amish vote?
There are a number of factors working against the Amish supporting Trump, or any presidential candidate for that matter. First, the Amish typically refrain from political participation – including voting – because of their religious beliefs. The Amish maintain a level of separation from the outside world to ensure spiritual purity.
Further complicating outreach to potential Amish voters is the role of the president as commander-in-chief. The Amish reject violence and war. The fact that the president controls the armed forces reduces the chances that they would participate in a presidential election.
That’s not to say that Amish never vote. The degree to which voting is accepted varies by church district and community. There is anecdotal evidence of Amish voting in local elections, particularly when ordinances or zoning issues directly influence their way of life. But, by and large, Amish going to the polls is the exception, not the rule.
The Amish vote in 2004
Perhaps the most prominent exception was the 2004 presidential election. At the time, Pennsylvania was considered a battleground state, and in the event of another cliffhanger election like in 2000, Pennsylvania’s 21 electoral votes could have decided the election’s outcome. Republican operatives sought to register new voters who would support George W. Bush’s socially conservative policies. Turning out a few thousand new voters from an untapped demographic group could swing the Keystone State in the event of another close election.
On the surface, registering Amish voters made sense. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where Republicans focused their efforts, is home to one of the world’s largest Amish settlements, and it was also the state’s Republican stronghold. Amish are socially conservative and rejected the practices of abortion, divorce and same-sex marriage. This group should have turned out in droves for Bush, but it didn’t.
In a study of Amish voting, my colleague Donald Kraybill and I found that in the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, voter registration among Amish people in Lancaster County increased by a whopping 169 percent. Of the 10,350 Amish adults in Lancaster County, 21 percent registered to vote by Election Day. We attributed this increase to three factors.
First, a former Lancaster Republican Committee chairman, who was born Amish but left the church before he was baptized, took the lead in personally reaching out to Amish voters. He maintained strong connections to the Amish community – his extended family were members of the Amish faith – and he spoke the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect.
Second, social issues – particularly same-sex marriage – were a focal point of the 2004 election. That year, voters in 11 states ratified state constitutional amendments outlawing same-sex unions. The perceived threat of society embracing a practice that was antithetical to biblical teachings motivated many Amish to register to vote.
Finally, Amish connected on a personal level with George W. Bush – a social conservative with a folksy demeanor. As one Amish man put it after meeting with President Bush following a campaign stop in Pennsylvania, “he seemed relaxed and just like an old neighbor.” Another Amish man agreed, “he seemed just like an old time farmer.” That, along with Bush’s sincerely held Christian beliefs, forged a bond with Amish people in Pennsylvania.
But, there was a backlash. Amish bishops were alarmed by this new groundswell of political engagement within their communities just months before the election. In several Amish publications, church leaders urged community members to refrain from voting and instead pray for the country’s leaders. Of the 2,134 registered Amish voters in Lancaster County, 63 percent turned out to vote on Election Day. That’s a respectable level of turnout for any voter demographic, but even assuming that all 1,342 Amish voters supported Bush, that wasn’t nearly enough to swing Pennsylvania. John Kerry won the state by more than 144,000 votes.
Will Trump harvest the Amish vote?
What can we expect this year?
Conditions in 2016 are quite different than 2004. True, there is a former member of the Amish faith working to mobilize Amish voters for Trump. However, it is not clear he has the same political or community connections necessary to mobilize a large number of voters, particularly in multiple states.
Also, same-sex marriage isn’t nearly as controversial as it was in 2004. Issues like the economy and terrorism are the highest priority in 2016, and the presidential campaigns are focusing on those issues.
Most importantly, The Donald isn’t Dubya.
Trump has filed for divorce multiple times, and several of his businesses went bankrupt. Any of these actions, individually, are grounds for excommunication in the Amish faith. And it’s hard to image Amish feeling as strong of a connection to Trump as they did to Bush. After all, Trump isn’t openly religious and his lifestyle is anything but “plain.”
A better bet may be for Trump to appeal to Reagan Democrats affected by the collapse of the manufacturing industry. After all, there are many disaffected blue-collar voters around Scranton, Pittsburgh and Clevelandwho could turn Pennsylvania and Ohio red in November. Those voters are in play, and there are far more of them than Amish voters.