Trump faces an uphill effort courting the Amish vote in Pennsylvania
Mark Robert and his brother arrived in Lititz on Saturday evening in order to be first into the Trump rally Monday morning. York Daily Record
The billboard looms over Route 30 east of Lancaster.
“VOTE TRUMP,” it proclaims. “Hard Working, Pro-Life, Family Dedicated...Just Like YOU.”
A smaller photo of Donald Trump adorns the upper left corner of the billboard. Half of the roadside ad is a photo of an Amish buggy sporting an “I Voted” sticker on its back.
The ad aimed at the Amish was placed there by a Virginia-based political action committee called Amish PAC to energize the plain people to vote for Trump — who campaigned in Lancaster County Monday and gave a shout-out to the Amish.
The Amish do not have a lengthy history of political activism. In fact, they seem to shun it.
“I read in the Bible, my Kingdom is not of this world,” said one Amish man from southern York County who declined to give his name, offering his reason for not voting. “As followers of Jesus, we don’t believe in political power.”
That sentiment is echoed by Kyle Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College who has studied the nexus of the Amish and the political system.
“As followers of Christ,” he said, “they believe they should strive to live in the kingdom of God rather than deal with earthly matters.”
Another Elizabethtown scholar, Steve Nolt, a professor of history and Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College, and senior scholar at the college’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies who has worked with Kopko studying Amish political beliefs, described it as “a two kingdoms theology.”
“The Amish believe if we don’t want the government to tell us how to run our church, we don’t want to tell the government how to run society,” he said. “The realm of the government is someone else’s business, the purview of a world is that they’re not a part of.”
Still, there are those who are courting the Amish vote, even if their efforts may not pay off in significant numbers.
Voting among the Amish 'has never been widespread'
The history of the Amish participation in the political system is scant. Voting in the community “has never been widespread,” Nolt said, “but a small minority has done so for a long time.”
Nolt cited a 1918 letter from the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society’s archive written by Congressman William Walton Griest, a Republican who served from 1909 to 1929, which refers to the congressman “reaching out to the Lancaster Amish to ask for their votes, based on his belief that some had voted for him in the past.”
He was mistaken. Studies, Nolt said, show that from the 1990s to the early 2000s, only five to eight percent of eligible Amish voted in any given election. It jumped to 13 percent in 2004, but by 2016, the figure was down to “a historically typical” seven percent, Nolt said.
The Amish who do vote are typically Republican. Ninety percent of the registered voters among the Amish are registered Republicans. Only one percent register as Democrats.
That’s not surprising to Nolt. “I think a significant factor is local political context,” he said. “If, for example, you are interested in politics, and embedded in rural Lancaster County, connected to politically minded neighbors and coworkers, your political sentiments are probably going to be Republican. It would be surprising if that wasn’t the case.”
Generally speaking, Nolt said, the Amish may be drawn to what are considered Republican values – limiting government and regulation, being favorable to small business, focusing on rural issues and opposing abortion.
Interestingly, Nolt said, it has historically been Democrats who have often taken interest in the community’s interests. “Amish private schools and the exemption from high school were legitimized in Pennsylvania in 1955 under the administration of Democrat George Leader,” Nolt said. It was a Republican governor of Wisconsin, Warren Knowles, who litigated a challenge to Amish education, a case that wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the court’s liberals ruled against the governor. (Among those criticizing that ruling was failed conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.)
Trump 'a hard sell' to the Amish
During his rally Monday in Lititz, Trump predicted he would win the Amish vote.
“Don’t tell anybody, but the Pennsylvania Dutch are voting en masse. They’re voting. I heard that the other day,” Trump said at a rally at the Lancaster Airport. “They said, ‘We work hard. We can’t have a man who sleeps all day in the basement.'"
A handful of Amish men could be seen in the front row at the rally. But whether that translates into "voting en masse" remains to be seen.
The numbers don’t lie. They demonstrate that the Amish vote does not appear to be significant. Trump won the state by 44,000 votes in 2016. Of the 15,055 Amish who are eligible to vote in the state, only 2,052 are registered. Of those, only 1,016 voted in 2016, Kopko said. By contrast, the high-water mark for turnout among the Amish was in 2004, when 1,300 voted for then-President George W. Bush.
Part of that may be that Trump’s character made him “a hard sell” to the plain people, Kopko said.
There is an Amish PAC
One organization trying to make that sale is Amish PAC, believing that in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, every vote, even the few that could be harvested from the Amish community, counts.
Amish PAC is not run by the Amish, rather it is headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, founded in 2016 by two men, Ben Walters and Ben King. King, president of a construction company in Lancaster County, is a former member of the Amish community and serves as outreach director for the PAC. King has said in previous interviews with other media outlets that for the Amish he spoke with in 2016, “the primary thing that brought out the Amish vote was the Supreme Court.” Walters has said that Hillary Clinton “was a blessing” for the PAC. (Emails and phone messages left for Walters and King were not returned.)
The PAC spent $139,693 on the campaign in 2016, according to the Open Secrets website. That works out to $130 per vote. In 2020, as of the end of September, the PAC has spent $155,139 of the $181,763 it has raised. The money is spent on outreach and low-tech forms of advertising, mostly billboards and print ads in Amish and local newspapers.
Amish PAC attracts donations from all over the country – Arizona, Colorado, Alaska, Florida, Connecticut, among others. Its single largest donor is the retired president of an oil and gas company in Louisiana, who, during this election cycle, has contributed $45,800 to the PAC, according to Open Secrets.
Bikers for Trump tries the grassroots approach
Another person working on drumming up political interest among the Amish is Chris Cox, founder of Bikers for Trump.
Cox began working with the Amish in recent years, noting that the community was “disengaged and disenfranchised” by its disdain for electoral participation. He said it reminds him of the founding of this nation, that the Amish could relate to the phrase “taxation without representation.”
He has taken a grassroots approach to organizing the Amish, mostly finding them where they live and listening to them. In a way, he said, “it’s like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube and being color-blind.”
“I had to find one thing to bring them out,” Cox said Monday as he was driving from his South Carolina home to Lancaster for a Trump rally. Opposition to abortion, he said, “provided a powerful narrative” to prompt participation in the community and gin up support for Trump.
“They’re on board,” he said.
It helped that in December, he took eight Amish men to visit the White House, where they met with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. After meeting Trump, the Amish men met with Pence in his office. They noticed a Bible open on his desk and Pence read Scripture to them and prayed with them. Cox said.
“They were very impressed with the vice president,” Cox said, “and the vice president was interested in what the Amish could offer.”
'I don't get any sense of it'
The Amish are often viewed as an insular community. But lately, as one Amish man said, the community is becoming more and more entwined in the outside world. “Everything changes,” he said. “But we try to be pretty much self-sufficient.”
Voting among the Amish, one said, “is very much a personal choice. Our leaders discourage it, though.”
One of the reasons for discouraging voting has to do with the Amish’s belief in pacifism and non-violence. Voting for a president who, through military power, may get people killed would make them complicit in that violence if they voted.
“That’s my biggest concern,” said Samuel Esh, whose family lives on a 55-acre spread near Airville in southern York County, having moved there seven years ago from Lancaster County. Esh has voted in township elections, but never in a presidential race. “If I voted for a president and he got us into a war, I can’t do that.”
And the political skirmishes and bickering and division, he said, don’t help.
“The fight they’re having now,” Esh said, “I don’t get any sense of it.”
Columnist/reporter Mike Argento has been a Daily Record staffer since 1982. Reach him at 717-771-2046 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.