In the dark hours of early Wednesday morning, moments after Donald Trump gave his victory speech to a cheering ballroom in New York, the president-elect paused backstage with Pentecostal pastor Paula White.
With vice-president-elect Mike Pence and their families nearby, White prayed over them, asking God to guide them in wisdom and to protect them in the days ahead. Just days earlier, White was traveling with Trump on his plane when he brought up how Harry Truman surprised everyone by winning against Thomas Dewey in 1948.
Now, Trump prepares to enter the White House after an upset of his own. For White, “God’s hand and purpose in this” is hard to miss—thousands of Christians, she says, joined her in three days of prayer and fasting in anticipation of the outcome. “I haven’t personally seen it since 9/11 when the body has really come together,” she says.
Unlike much of the political universe, Trump’s inner circle of evangelical advisors is anything but surprised at his victory. More than most, evangelicals cast their lot with Trump early, and like White, many of Trump key evangelical advisors were with Trump’s team on Tuesday in New York to usher in their win together. Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., talked with Trump four times on Tuesday. It was on their third phone call, while waiting for Trump at the victory party, Falwell says, that Trump realized he was about to win.
“‘Jerry, I think they are going to call Pennsylvania,’” Falwell recalls Trump saying. “The next think I know, I’m getting texts from his son-in-law they were on their way over.”
Many of Trump’s evangelical leaders were optimistic of Trump’s success leading into Election Day. More than a handful drew on spiritual experiences, like prophecies and dreams, for strength. White early on had spiritual visions of God’s plan for Trump. Cleveland pastor Darrell Scott’s wife, Belinda, has had dreams where God showed her Trump would win. “I prophesized back in the primaries, we are going to win,” Mark Burns, televangelist from Easley, South Carolina and Trump surrogate, says. “God uses the least likely, from myself to Donald Trump.”
Tuesday morning, Trump invited several of his top evangelical supporters to visti him in his office. Scott, pastor of Cleveland’s New Spirit Revival Center, and Bruce LeVell, the Georgia jeweler who led Trump’s National Diversity Coalition, stopped by. Later that afternoon, Scott was with Trump advisor Michael Cohen in Trump Tower when he got a random call from one of Clinton’s Ohio phone bankers, asking him to vote for Clinton. Scott put the call on speaker, and the room chimed in that they all “hated” Clinton. “The call was the highlight of my day,” Scott says.
Robert Jeffress, Southern Baptist pastor of First Dallas and another member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, says Trump and his wife Melania were “very, very upbeat,” when he stopped by, and hours before the polls closed, the campaign was “cautiously optimistic.” Jeffress reminded Trump that he thought evangelicals would respond to his performance in the third debate, especially his positions on the Supreme Court and on abortion. Trump nodded. “He asked me how I thought the evangelical turnout would be,” Jeffress says. “I told him I thought it would be very strong.”
“Very strong” was an understatement. Evangelicals comprised a record 26% of the electorate on Tuesday, and more than 80% of white born-again voters voted for Trump. Clinton received just 16% of the white evangelical vote, the lowest share ever received by a Democratic presidential nominee, according to Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition. “Evangelicals, white non-college voters, and momentum and intensity proved more important than ground game alone,” Reed says. “He went after them unapologetically, did faith-based media, and made an ironclad pledge on judges.” Evangelical turnout should not surprise, Scott adds, as evangelicals are “the group that was overlooked by the left, derided, denigrated by the liberal left.”
These advisors say that Trump’s commitment to evangelicals—and divine providence—put Trump across the finish line Tuesday night. It was a strategy Trump chose early. When he considered a presidential run in 2011, he met with White, Scott and other pastors, and after prayer with them decided the time was not right. This cycle, Trump met early on with Pentecostal and evangelical pastors, many of whom were traditional political outsiders, and soon after evangelical figures like Falwell endorsed him, signaling to the evangelical base that a political outsider could have their trust. Trump created an evangelical advisory board, which held calls with Trump’s campaign or RNC strategists every Monday morning since the summer.
The reach of Christian television and particularly the DayStar Network was significant, White says, as well as these pastors’ social media. “The way we reach people has changed,” White says. “People that normally wouldn’t be political were much more engaged, and that showed.”
Jeffress says that both Clinton’s “corruption” and Trump’s commitment to anti-abortion judicial nominations were key factors for evangelical voters. “No Republican candidate has made greater effort to reach out to evangelicals than Trump,” Jeffress says. “The real question is why didn’t others like Romney and McCain make a similar effort. …There is a silent Trump vote that polls did not capture and many of those votes are evangelical.”
Falwell says many in the media and political class might have been less surprised at the election’s outcome if they better understand the evangelical community. “Evangelical theology is all about forgiveness,” he says. “When you look at the issues, he ended up being the dream candidate for conservatives and evangelicals. The evangelical community has not been divided on Trump, just the leadership—the people were smarter than their leaders.”