Pro-Trump PAC goes after Amish voters

EAST LAMPETER, Pa. — They don't email or tweet, Facebook or blog. They don't follow TV news or YouTube, or know a viral moment from a head cold. They do not play casino slots or golf. Bankruptcy is anathema, a sign of shirked responsibility. A divorce — let alone two — is a ticket out of the fold.

All of which raises the question: So can the Amish — ruled by mores of 16th century Anabaptist Christianity — be persuaded to vote for Donald Trump?

Amish PAC, a first-of-its-kind political action committee, is trying. Its "Plain Voters Project" has targeted Pennsylvania's estimated 35,000 eligible Amish voters, most in Lancaster County, and a like-size bloc in Holmes County, Ohio. Together, the two counties are home to half of the nation's 300,000 Amish people.

"If the Amish were high-propensity voters, there wouldn't be a need for Amish PAC. But they are not," said Ben Walters, who co-founded the Virginia-based group with donors to Republican Ben Carson's presidential campaign.

In the 2004 presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry, 13 percent of Lancaster County Amish age 18 and older voted. Amish PAC says Trump can do better.

Of registered Amish voters, an estimated 93 percent are Republican. "When (the Amish) vote, they vote for individual rights, personal responsibility, less government, lower taxes, and to protect their right to bear arms," Walters said. "And they are coming around to Trump. He's not perfect. He has a lot of shortcomings. But they see him as an imperfect person who is much better than the alternative."

Amish PAC is promoting Trump with ads in community newspapers and billboards on rural roads. They show him with hands folded at a desk, beside a picture of an Amish horse and buggy Photoshopped to include an "I Voted" American-flag sticker. Below are the words "hard working, pro-life, family dedicated ... just like you."

For the Amish, Walters said, the image of Trump as a Washington outsider who heads a family business "really resonates."

Leaders of both the Republican and Democratic committees in Lancaster County are looking on in curiosity.

"This is a big election. It is a time for everyone to sit up and take notice," Repbulican Chairman Dave Dumeyer said. "But even if you got all the Amish to come out, I don't think it would move the needle a whole lot."

Sally Lyall, the Democratic chairwoman, said her party would make no special effort to win over Amish voters.

"We, of course, think we have a compelling message, with family and environment," she said. "But we need to be strategic where we spend our time and money."

Amish PAC's Lancaster outreach coordinator is Ben King, co-owner of Quarry View Construction. The eldest of 12 children, he was raised Amish but left the church three years ago. In some circles, that means he is shunned, but he says he has strong contacts in the community.

King has saturated township offices and popular haunts with mail-in voter-registration forms, which must be filed by Oct. 11.

While the Amish electorate is a minuscule portion of the 8.3 million Pennsylvanians projected to cast ballot Nov. 8, even a few thousand votes can make a difference in a close race, PAC organizers say.

"It may sound crazy, but an increase of Amish voter turnout ... could spell very bad news for Hillary Clinton," King wrote in a fund-raising appeal.

With donations averaging about $200, Amish PAC says it has raised $30,000 toward a hoped-for voter-registration budget of $41,000. That "is a modest amount," Walters said. "But with it, we are able to blanket Amish country. There is no political noise out there. You are not competing with a lot of other ads."

For Mose Smucker, the jury is still out. Born in the village of Churchtown, Smucker ran a tack shop that supplied harnesses for the Budweiser Clydesdale team, among other clients. Since 2008, he has operated the Grill at Smucker's, a sandwich and beef-jerky shop at Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

A registered Republican, father of eight, and grandfather of 24, Smucker said he didn't vote in the primary and is not sure if he'll vote in the general election, being "kind of leery" of both Trump and Clinton.

"Some people say we need a businessman in the White House, and Trump is a businessman. That's a little bit what I'm hearing," he said. "But some of his other values are not parallel to our beliefs."

The Amish abhorrence of gambling is one issue. Some experts on Amish culture say Trump's involvement in casinos could be as much an impediment as his divorces.

Among the authorities on Amish civic engagement are Steven Nolt, senior scholar at Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, and his predecessor, Donald Kraybill.

"The two places where there is at least a modest tradition of Amish voting — Pennsylvania and Ohio — are states that may be politically competitive" in November, Nolt said.

To have any impact, however, the Amish will need to surmount their natural disinclination to vote.

Their reluctance is based on a "two kingdoms" theology: the material kingdom "of this world," and the celestial kingdom of God. While respecting worldly governments, they believe the spiritual kingdom takes precedence. Many maintain the best thing to do on Election Day is pray "God's will to be done."

A presidential election is particularly knotty: As pacifists, some Amish refuse to vote for the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

All that considered, the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush was extraordinary, said Kraybill, who with Elizabethtown graduate student Kyle Kopko coauthored a postmortem titled "Bush Fever."

They found that before 2004 in Lancaster County, about 800 Amish were registered to vote, and that a 2004 grass-roots drive boosted registrations to about 2,100. Of those, 1,342 actually voted. That was a major Amish turnout, but just a drop in the big Pennsylvania bucket, in which Kerry beat Bush by 144,248 votes.

"I don't know if a 5 percent increase on the 2004 numbers — as I read the Amish PAC hopes — will make that much difference in Pennsylvania's overall swing-state picture," Nolt said.

Kraybill is blunter.

"This year is very different," he said. "Bush had a down-home, farm-type persona. He spoke about his faith as an evangelical. Trump is filled with hubris and is boastful. For the Amish, humility is one of the highest virtues.

"If Pennsylvania is decided by 300 votes, will a few Amish votes make a difference?" he said. "Maybe. But I really doubt it."