Americans will get their best look yet at the slate of candidates vying for the GOP nomination in 2024 during the first Republican presidential debate and a pre-recorded interview with former president Donald Trump, both airing Wednesday night.
Evangelicals remain a key constituency for the Republican Party and for Trump in particular, who leads in most polls. But the political landscape has changed in significant ways in the four years since the last campaign, so when it comes to the big issues, evangelical voters have some new questions for the Republican field. This is the first presidential election since Roe v. Wade was overturned, since Russia invaded Ukraine, and since Trump’s indictments.
Eight GOP contenders will take the stage for the debate in Milwaukee, among them Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; former vice president Mike Pence; former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, both from South Carolina; and Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and newcomer to the political scene. (Trump is skipping the debate in favor of a pre-recorded interview with the erstwhile Fox News host Tucker Carlson.)
Here are four things evangelicals will likely be watching for on Wednesday night:
The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last year was celebrated as a historic victory for the pro-life cause. But the aftermath has shown that both Republicans and the pro-life community were unprepared for what came next.
The issue of abortion is now in the hands of state governments, and the response has varied. Some, like Florida under the leadership of DeSantis, have enacted strict abortion limits, while others have expanded access to the procedure. In several states, abortion has ended on the ballot, leaving the matter to voters.
One consequence for GOP candidates is that voters can now differentiate between their positions on abortion, something that Mark Caleb Smith, who teaches political science at Cedarville University, says was not possible before.
“In the past, Republican candidates could say they were pro-life and pledge to appoint federal judges in line with that pledge. Since virtually everyone would say the same thing, abortion was rarely meaningful as a way to distinguish between Republican candidates. Now, that has changed,” Smith said.
On this issue, the candidates have varied views. Several, such as Pence, Scott, and Haley, support a federal 15-week ban.
Trump, who appointed the justices who helped overturn Roe, and DeSantis, who signed a six-week ban in Florida, seem hesitant to establish a federal rule on abortion.
Doug Burgum, governor of North Dakota, has restricted abortion in his home state but opposes a national ban, while Chris Christie, former governor of New Jersey, will only support it if there’s a “consensus” from the states. Ramaswamy, too, opposes a national ban, but will support a six-week ban at the state level.
According to polling data from Pew Research, in 2022 about 74 percent of white evangelicals believed abortion should be illegal in all, if not most, cases (in 2014, 63 percent of evangelicals in general opposed abortion, according to Pew). On Wednesday, evangelicals will be looking closely at the candidates’ position on this issue.
The elephant in the room will not be in the room. But while Trump will be absent from the debate, his legal predicaments will loom large. The former president faces four indictments at the federal and state levels. Yet he remains by far the most popular candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
This leaves the rest of the GOP candidates in a tricky position. DeSantis, Scott, and Haley have avoided criticizing Trump and instead have pointed fingers at Democrats and the prosecutors involved in the cases. Pence has tried to thread the needle between reprimanding his former running mate and letting the justice system’s process play out. He has said, “History will hold Trump accountable,” but has hedged on the question of whether Trump should be charged with crimes.
Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, and Christie are among the most vocal critics of Trump. Hutchinson has said Trump should “respect the office and end his campaign.” Ramaswamy, on the other hand, is perhaps Trump’s most vocal supporter and has called on other candidates to pardon him if elected.
While Trump retains a strong grip on the GOP, his legal troubles have raised questions on his ability to defeat President Joe Biden in a general election.
“While no candidate on the stage this Wednesday can challenge Donald Trump’s popularity within the Republican Party, they can challenge his ability to win next November,” Smith said.
Some evangelicals have suggested that it’s time to move past Trump, but according to polls, a majority seem to think he has done no wrong and is the best candidate to face Biden in the upcoming election.
Michael Wear, president of The Center for Christianity and Public Life and a former faith outreach coordinator for the Obama administration, says both Trump and the Democratic Party think that the outcome of the Republican primary is a “foregone conclusion.” But he reckons this is “just the beginning” and “evangelicals will have a tremendous say in how it turns out.”
“The wonderful thing about our system, though, is that voters actually do get to have their say. I hope evangelicals will watch this debate with an open mind and with the good of their neighbors as their lens,” Wear said.
He challenged viewers to “think about who on that stage would actually serve our nation with dignity and purpose, and advance ideas and policies with the greatest promise of promoting human flourishing, particularly for the poor.”
It has been 18 months since Russia invaded Ukraine. Nearly half a million Ukrainians and Russians have died or been injured in the conflict, according to US officials. In that time, the US has also approved about $113 billion in humanitarian aid and military assistance to Ukraine. Now Ukraine and Russia seem to be in a costly protracted battle, with no clear end in sight.
While Ukraine received overwhelming support from Americans at the beginning of the war, American generosity seems to have cooled off over time. A slight majority of Americans now think the US has sent enough aid to Ukraine.
Evangelicals similarly seem to have mixed feelings. While many have supported continuing aid, some seem to be less enthusiastic. When Pence suggested the US should remain committed to sending aid during a live interview in July, the response from a room full of evangelicals was lukewarm (some even booed).
The candidates will likely face tough questions about their position on the war in Ukraine. Christie, Burgum, Haley, Hutchinson, Pence, and Scott have said they would continue supporting Ukraine, to varying extents. DeSantis (along with Trump) is ambivalent, while Ramaswamy is opposed to it and has even suggested Ukraine should cede territory to Russia to end the war.
The top issue for Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, according to a Pew Research Center poll from June, is inflation. Inflation has been cooling off after reaching historic highs in recent years due, in part, to the pandemic, but interest rates remain high and may increase further.
While evangelicals are vocal about issues such as abortion and religious freedom, the economy remains a chief concern. According to a survey from Arizona Christian University last year, economic issues—such as inflation and prices of commodities like food and gas—were the top issues listed by respondents.
Here the GOP candidates have been less specific about their positions. Most have pledged to reduce government spending and have suggested tax reforms. Pence is targeting Biden-specific policies, such as student loan forgiveness programs and funding for agencies like Amtrak and the IRS, among other measures.
DeSantis has pledged to crack down on DEI—diversity, equity, and inclusion programs—and Ramaswamy has said he will lift regulations on the production of fossil fuels and nuclear energy to achieve GDP growth.