With more than 70,000 Amish people in Pennsylvania, and about half that number in Lancaster County, a horse and buggy trotting slowly down the side of the road hardly warrants a second look.
But a horse and buggy with an “I voted” sticker on the back raises eyebrows. Especially if the image is on a billboard paid for by Amish PAC, a political action committee intent on electing Donald Trump to the White House.
That’s right — there’s an Amish PAC, and it’s backing Trump.
“The purpose of Amish PAC’s Plain Voter Project,” reads the organization’s website, “is to beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by turning out a deeply conservative and often forgotten block of voters concentrated in two key swing states [Ohio and Pennsylvania] — the Amish.”
Political campaigning and funding take place mostly within the world of digital media, and it’s the opportunity to operate in a different realm that appealed to co-founder Ben Walters, a former fundraiser with a Ben Carson super PAC. “A fascinating thing for me about the project was the opportunity — in a time where we’re seeing hundreds of millions pumped into Facebook, Google, Snapchat — to appeal to people where the only forms of ads you can use are the old-fashioned ones.” Like newspapers and billboards.
It doesn’t matter to Walters, 27, that these traditional forms of ad space don’t have the immense audiences of digital ones — he’s trying to reach a group of people who don’t use the internet or watch television. And unlike Facebook and Google ads, the ones Amish PAC invests in are relatively cheap. The cost for running a billboard for one month in Lancaster is only $1,000.
Walters says the Amish PAC has raised “in the neighborhood of about $25,000 so far,” which he acknowledges is an “incredibly modest number” for a PAC. However, he points out that the money has come from hundreds of small-dollar donors, 99 percent of whom have contributed less than $200. “It’s very Bernie-esque,” says Walters, noting the similarity with Senator Sanders’ grassroots fundraising efforts.
To Walters’ knowledge, none of the PAC’s donors are Amish. Rather, he says, the funds are coming in from conservative voters who see the PAC “as a way to unlock new votes to impact the election.”
Walters sees historical precedent for the impact of the Pennsylvania Amish vote in the 2004 presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry. According to a paper by Donald Kraybill, sociology professor at Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown University, GOP activists scoured the country for unregistered voters eager to embrace Bush-Cheney’s interpretation of traditional values. It soon became clear to them that Amish people — naturally conservative, explicitly Christian — could be an important demographic.
Their mobilizing efforts found some success. In 2000, 960 Amish and Mennonites in Lancaster were registered to vote. Four years later, the number was over 2,000. More than 500 Amish ultimately voted in 2000; a record 1,674 cast ballots in 2004.
That bump is what the leadership of Amish PAC is hoping to replicate. But Kraybill cautions about exaggerating a parallel between that election and this one. “What happened in 2004 is an aberration which I don’t think will be replicated this year,” he says. One main difference Kraybill notes is the nature of the organizing.
In 2004, the effort had a local element, with leadership by Chet Beiler, a former Amish person whose parents left the Amish church when he was 3 years old. Beiler, then-chair of the Lancaster County GOP, was able to tap into his personal connections with Amish communities to mobilize them to vote. “This year,” says Kraybill, “the impetus is from an outside, out-of-state group, which is very different than a homegrown movement.”
Another difference between 2016 and 2004 is the actual candidates, says Kraybill. “Donald Trump is not George Bush. The contrast is very sharp.” As Kraybill notes in Bush Fever, Bush made 44 visits to Pennsylvania before the 2004 election. A quarter of those trips were to Lancaster or an adjacent county, and some of those visits included opportunities for personal interactions with Amish communities.
During one such visit, writes Kraybill, Beiler arranged to have an Amish man, Amos Miller, escorted through a backdoor so to avoid being photographed by the press. When Bush took the stage, he winked at the man. After the conference, Bush put his hands on the man’s shoulders and said, “Tell the Amish churches how I need their prayers so I can run the country as God wishes.”
In stark contrast, the current GOP effort to court the Amish is counting on the fact that this is the rare slice of America with little to no knowledge about Donald Trump. Not only does Trump lack Bush’s comfort with faith talk and religiosity, but as Kraybill points out, his hubris and arrogance are “antithetical” to Amish modesty. “Trump does not display the religious beliefs that would attract Amish people,” Kraybill says, noting that in Amish communities, both divorce and bankruptcy are cause for excommunication.
Walters admits that “lifestyle-wise, Trump couldn’t be more different” than Amish people. But he doesn’t think most potential Amish voters know too much about the candidate. “Imagine you’ve never read his tweets, you don’t know about his Megyn Kelly feud, you haven’t watched The Apprentice — you just don’t know a lot about him. We’re still in the phase of introducing Amish people to Donald Trump.”
Amish PAC is going about that task by pitching Trump to these would-be voters as an industrious teetotaling family man. “Hard Working, Pro-Life, Family Dedicated…Just Like YOU” reads one billboard currently along Route 272 in Lancaster County.
“The Amish appreciate the fact that he’s a strong worker with a strong work ethic,” says Walters. “He’s a family man with fantastic children, and the fact that he turned over his business to family while he runs for president — that resonates with Amish. And he’s a man who abstains from substances; he’s never [consumed] alcohol.”
Walters says he’s not sure if Amish people are going to overlook character flaws, but that even if they don’t, they will recognize that “the alternative is Hillary.” When they weigh the two together, Walters says Amish people are going to turn out for Trump.
Kraybill agrees. “Those that are motivated to vote may more likely do so to prevent Clinton from being elected. The Amish historically have very strong Republican views. Some of them jokingly have said, ‘We don’t vote, but we pray Republican.’”
While Amish people aren’t permitted to hold public office or actively participate in campaigns, Kraybill says they aren’t forbidden to vote. Traditionally, though, Amish voter turnout is low. “The church discourages them from voting in presidential elections because as conscientious objectors, they are voting for the commander-in-chief of the military — which church leaders consider hypocritical.” Of course, he notes that political interest and participation varies among the more than 500 different Amish communities.
Amish PAC’s campaign is focused on Trump, but Walters says its endgame is to build a long-lasting relationship with the Amish. “This is really the last group of potential voters that’s off the grid,” he notes. “We’re hoping to turn them into more regular voters.”
“It’s an experiment,” he says. “I can’t claim we’re going to make any sort of dramatic difference — but we can only help. We can’t hurt.”
First, though, Walters and his PAC are learning to navigate some awkward cultural differences. There was a bit of a controversy last month surrounding an ad the PAC placed in The Budget, a national Amish and Mennonite newspaper. “Believe it or not, it got a lot of complaints because the Amish who subscribed to it thought the newspaper was endorsing Trump,” says Walters. “So we had to pull the ad.”
The newspaper wasn’t endorsing Trump at all. But its Amish readers were confused for good reason — they had never seen a political ad before.