Two years after it aimed to “unlock the Amish vote” for Donald Trump, the Washington-based Amish PAC is relaunching its efforts just as a new study indicates it may have had little impact in 2016.
“Our nation and our way of life are still in mortal danger,” reads a fresh Amish PAC newspaper ad that urges “Plain Voters” to vote — and pray — for Republicans in the November midterms.
If they don’t, the ad says, Democrats could remove the president who the Amish helped elect, and who “has kept his promises to lower taxes, reduce over regulation and preserve our religious freedoms!”
But according to researchers at Elizabethtown College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Amish PAC did not exactly have its desired effect the last time it tried to influence the overwhelmingly conservative, though historically non-voting, group.
In fact, their research found that despite a nearly 50 percent increase in eligible voting-age Amish compared to 2004 — the previous time there was a major effort to get them to the polls — there were fewer numbers of Amish who both registered and turned out in 2016.
Out of 15,055 eligible Amish voters in Lancaster County, just 2,052 were registered and 1,019 turned out to vote on Election Day 2016, the study found.
That’s down from 10,350 eligible voters, 2,134 registered and 1,342 who turned out for President George W. Bush’s re-election.
Of the Amish who do register to vote, nine in 10 sign up as Republicans, the study found.
“Amish PAC certainly didn’t hurt, let’s put it that way,” Elizabethtown College political science professor Kyle Kopko said during a presentation of the study’s findings this week. “But if they had not been involved ... maybe members of the community would've been so put off by something that Donald Trump said that they might not have gone to the polls. We don’t know. That’s the big question we just can’t answer.”
The Amish PAC made national and international headlines two years ago when it announced it would target the religious and typically technology-shunning community as a voting bloc.
Republicans with ties to Newt Gingrich and Ben Carson ran the committee from Washington, with volunteers on the ground in Amish communities in Lancaster and Ohio. They raised nearly $169,000 from 41 states and spent $140,000 on billboards and newspaper advertisements.
In 2017-18, they’ve raised another $25,000 and spent nearly twice that, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Their new ads this fall will focus on getting more Amish registered and out to vote, said Ben King, the local organizer who grew up in an Amish family from Leola. They won’t promote specific candidates, but a newspaper ad provided to LNP shows it repeatedly advocates for Republicans.
Billboards will go up again soon in different parts of the county, and ads have already been placed in Lancaster Farming, a publication of LNP Media Group that has a significant Amish readership.
“I’m not really discouraged by it,” King said of the Elizabethtown College findings. “It will be something that will have to be continued, an ongoing process of changing the culture and the mindsets.”
Whether the Amish voting bloc can grow remains to be seen. And with 37,000 Amish church members in Lancaster, fewer than half are of voting age anyway, according to the study.
“Amish church members have little interest or hope for reforming wider society,” said Steve Nolt, a senior scholar at the Young Center who also presented the study.
Still, he said there has always been a “persistent minority tradition of voting in some Amish families,” and by the late 1990s there were as many as 450 registered Amish voters in Lancaster County.
The study of 2016 was conducted by searching publicly available voter registration information and cross-referencing it with Amish church directories.
While voters’ ballots are private, the researchers found that 90 percent of Amish voters are Republican, 1 percent are Democrat and 9 percent are registered independent or third-party.
Two-thirds of all Amish voters are men, and that share actually increased from 72.1 percent to 77.6 percent between 2004-12.
In addition to counting the voter rolls, the study included an online survey from Franklin & Marshall College pollster Berwood Yost of how the Amish PAC ads would affect non-Amish voters. But instead of using the same ads, Yost replaced “Vote Trump” and Trump’s picture with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, and another with his Republican opponent Scott Wagner.
One of the more interesting findings, Yost said, was that those who got the Wanger Amish PAC ad had more negative views about the Amish compared with those who got the same ad featuring Wolf.
“This raises a whole host of issues,” Yost said. “What is the moral responsibility that individuals have to appropriate someone else's good name in the name of politics. I think that's a fundamental issue we have to ask ourselves.”