In the 2004 presidential election, Republicans, worried about another close race that could end up in the courts, as the 2000 election did, decided to seek potential pockets of voters who until that point were untested by campaign strategists. They sought the Amish.
In 2016, a group that supported Donald Trump’s campaign tried a similar strategy, according to two Elizabethtown College scholars who spoke Jan. 17 at Franklin & Marshall College’s Common Hour, a community discussion conducted every Thursday classes are in session.
The Amish PAC, a newly formed political action committee based in Arlington, Va., was not as successful as President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. A number of the Old Order members disapproved of some of the PAC’s tactics, and Amish-voter turnout in Lancaster was less than what is was in 2004.
“On election day 2004, the number of Amish registered to vote was a little over 2,000, but turnout was a little over 1,300,” said Kyle Kopko, associate professor of political science and associate dean of Institutional Effectiveness, Research, and Planning at Elizabethtown. “Before the spring primary in 2004 and election day 2004, Amish voter registration in Lancaster County shot up 169 percent.”
Kopko compared to what happened in 2016, when there was a roughly 45 percent increase in the number of potential Amish registered voters in Lancaster County. “The turnout was markedly lower than what we witnessed in the 2004 campaign,” he said.
Stephen Nolt, director of Elizabethtown’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, said one factor in the Amish PAC’s lack of success was its voter outreach tactics, particularly the use of advertising.
“In the spring of 2016, members of Amish PAC contacted The Budget, which is one of two widely read Amish weekly newspapers,” Nolt said. “It’s not a typical newspaper. It has no headlines or sports sections or color photos.”
Instead, The Budget, a national publication not owned by the Amish, has 36 pages of column after column of letters, written by readers who regularly write about life in their particular corner of the Amish world, Nolt said.
“The Budget does have paid advertisements, and Amish PAC contacted The Budget and laid out an offer with a fairly aggressive advertising campaign with one sizable ad on Page 2 every week throughout the election,” he said.
The ad that ran featured candidate Trump and some statements about him that highlighted his background as a businessman who operates family businesses, who is not a politician, who would appoint conservative judges, and who does not drink alcohol
“Within a day of this ad appearing, non-Amish editors at The Budget began receiving feedback from Amish readers [that was] uniformly negative,” Nolt said. “Within three days, the paper had received more negative feedback to this advertisement than to any advertisement it had ever run. So then, the editors of The Budget called the Amish PAC and canceled the rest of the advertising contract.”
To be clear, Nolt said the feedback varied, from disapproval of a political ad in the newspaper to disapproval of Trump. “One thing to note here is that the very negative response that The Budget received was coming from a national readership,” he said.
Moreover, Amish involvement in politics varies from place to place, Nolt said. “The fact that there was really negative reaction to The Budget does not necessarily mean there was negative reaction to this ad in the Lancaster settlement.”
Kopko said the advertising campaign, which include billboards with a horse and buggy, was one of the differences between 2004 and 2016. President George W. Bush, seeking re-election in 2004, did not run ads. He visited the county a dozen times and met with Amish residents.
Another factor included the social issues on the ballot in 2004: same sex marriage and abortion, subjects the Amish would respond to because of their religious beliefs. Also, the candidates were different—Bush was from a rural area who talked openly about his religious beliefs while Trump’s lifestyle was counter to the plain Amish, Kopko said.
The two scholars said they continue to study the 2016 election and what influence, if any, the Amish PAC had on voter turnout.