Ben King’s political awareness blossomed a dozen years ago as an Amish youth riding in a pickup truck.
Sitting among coworkers on the way home from his first construction job, King listened intently as conservative radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity played in the background. The discussions left an indelible impression on the 16-year-old.
“That’s when I really got interested in politics,” King said.
This year, some of the biggest names in American political journalism — NBC News, Politico, CNN — are interested in the worker turned Lancaster County construction executive.
King, 28, is community outreach director for the Virginia-based Amish PAC, a conservative political-action committee raising money for an ad blitz designed to get Amish voters to the polls in support of Republican candidates. The PAC is targeting Pennsylvania and Ohio, two key swing states that have the nation’s largest concentration of Amish, at just under 70,000 people each.
The looming question is whether members of the traditional Christian community, as farmers and businesspeople, will put economic concerns first and vote for Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee whose style and values may clash with their own. The PAC, meanwhile, frames its mission as galvanizing the Amish in a bid “to beat” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, according to its website.
PAC co-founder and fundraising manager Ben Walters, who like King started out supporting former GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, said he connected with the central Pennsylvania man after seeing his name on a list of Carson donors.
“I noticed that he was CEO of an Amish barn-building company,” said Walters, a non-Amish Midwest native who was thinking about ways to tap into the community’s voting potential.
King is president of East Lampeter Township-based Quarry View Construction, whose products range from timber-frame barns to contemporary agricultural and commercial structures.
“We hope to reach these people and raise the level of urgency to the point where people want to come out and vote, because they feel like they can make a difference,” said King, who left the Amish life several years ago but maintains ties with family and friends in the community.
Why the urgency? King feels that every vote will count in what could be closely fought races — not just for the presidency, but also for state contests, such as U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s re-election bid, as well as local races.
“Pennsylvania, I believe, is going to be voting Republican this time,” said King, citing predictions that the Keystone State this year could back a GOP candidate for the White House, something it hasn’t done since the election of George H.W. Bush in 1988.
“We have a need to get a couple more thousand people involved,” King said.
That ambition extends beyond the 2016 election, said Walters, who sees the PAC as a vehicle to spur Amish and other plain communities to support conservatives in future contests, including 2018 U.S. Senate races in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
How many vote?
The Amish are, PAC officials say, “a deeply conservative and often forgotten block of voters.” But they are not regular voters. Their religion and insular lifestyle keep many from the polls.
“To my knowledge, there are no systematic calculations on what percentage of Amish are registered to vote and go to the polls on an annual basis. Much of what we know is anecdotal based upon conversations with members of the community,” said Kyle Kopko, an associate professor of political science at Elizabethtown College who has examined Amish voting behavior.
“But, by and large, Amish do not vote in most elections,” Kopko said.
When they do vote in noticeable numbers, it tends to make headlines.
In 1960, for example, there was a spike in Amish voters as the conservative Protestant sect turned out to oppose Catholic Democrat John F. Kennedy, Franklin & Marshall College pollster and political analyst G. Terry Madonna said.
More recently, many Lancaster County Amish supported President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, a race that Kopko has examined in conjunction with now-retired Elizabethtown professor Donald Kraybill, an expert on Amish and Mennonite communities.
Out of about 10,350 Old Order Amish who lived in Lancaster County in 2004, more than 1,300 signed up to vote after that year’s primary, pushing the total to 2,134 by Election day, Kopko said.
Same-sex marriage, which the Amish oppose, was a key issue in that race. Kopko said the efforts of a former Lancaster County Republican Committee Chairman — who, like King, was formerly Amish — also likely played a role in energizing the community.
King and the PAC are broadening their approach beyond word-of-mouth. They hope to pull in $41,000 for newspaper and billboard advertising to reach Amish voters who typically do not have electronic devices and cannot be reached by broadcast or internet ads.
The dollar amount may sound small in the context of campaigns that spend millions, but the Amish media landscape is highly concentrated. The PAC’s newspaper campaign will focus on just three papers reaching a large segment of the nation’s estimated 300,000 Amish residents. One is Die Botschaft — Pennsylvania Dutch for “the message” — which is published weekly in Millersburg, Dauphin County, and carries news items submitted by Amish communities across the U.S. and Canada.
Walters said advertising will begin around the time of the Republican National Convention, set for July 18-21 in Cleveland, and will continue until November’s general election.
“It needs to be repetitve. We need to do it lots of times, not just once,” King said. “It always works in business: If we do enough advertising, put it in front of enough people enough times, someone is going to be affected by it.”
He and Walters know it may be an uphill battle.
“Some of them just don’t want to be involved at all with the outside world and politics,” King said. “I think that the challenge, really, is going to be to reach them often enough to make people aware of the dire situation that we’re in, and that we really need to get out and vote.”
For King, that dire situation is four more years of Democratic rule, which he feels would be damaging to the country and its economy, as well as the prospect of a Democratic president naming more justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. But he also sees Trump as a strong leader with solid business sense who can revive the nation’s economic fortunes.
Amish for Trump?
Could the billionaire New York businessman draw Amish voters?
Edsel Burdge Jr., a research associate at Elizabethtown’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies who is a Mennonite, doesn’t question which party the Amish tend to support.
“Most Amish are latent Republicans. They see it as the party of small businessmen and farmers,” he said. “My sense is, though, they don’t like Trump.”
For the Amish, GOP policies tend to be more in harmony with their economic views as well as their conservative social outlook, Burdge explained. But the latter is where Trump could come to grief.
“He’s brash and loud and inflammatory, which are things they don’t like,” Burdge said, adding that he expects Amish voters would as soon stay home than vote for candidates they don’t like.
Bush was someone the Amish could relate to, Kopko added, “and he genuinely connected with them because of his evangelical religious beliefs.”
Donald Trump is not an openly religious person, Kopko said. It would be difficult to overlook Trump’s multiple divorces.
PACs seeking to register the Amish may bring in some new voters, he said. “However, it’s unlikely that they will be able to register tens of thousands of Old Order voters, or a sufficient number to change the outcome of the election in a state like Ohio or Pennsylvania,” he added.
Walters believes it will help to show the Amish lesser-known aspects of Trump’s life.
“I think there is a side of Donald Trump that gets portrayed a whole lot more because it’s more attention-grabbing,” Walters said. “But there’s also a side of Donald Trump who is a wonderful father to his children, who has a strong work ethic and who has abstained from alcohol and substances his whole life,” Walters said.
So far, King said he has spoken with Amish businesspeople who “may not be 100 percent convinced,” but who are willing to hear him out.
He believes Amish with business interests can be persuaded to put policies ahead of personality and support Trump as a businessman who shares their concerns about issues such as the Affordable Care Act, which many Amish oppose.
“Most are very commonsense people, as are most Americans,” King said. “You focus on the things you have in common.”
The Amish electorate
What do Lancaster County’s Amish residents say about voting?
During a visit to several Amish-owned businesses in Lancaster County, women typically were working at the front counters. And they invariably referred a reporter’s questions to men — husbands, brothers — who were usually at work out in the fields.
Kopko’s research into the 2004 race found that men made up 72 percent of registered Amish voters in Lancaster County.
At one farm, a middle-aged Amish farmer barely waited until the question was finished. “Not interested,” he said, before returning to his work.
At another, a 28-year-old farmer took a few moments to discuss politics before asking that his name and farm not be referenced.
Holding his plowhorses at bay, he said he is aware of candidates, but doesn’t vote, although he knows some Amish who do.
Manny Beiler, 41, stopped as he was crossing his horses and plow from fields on one side of Lincoln Highway to another in East Lampeter.
“I only voted once, It was years ago,” said Beiler, adding that he doesn’t get the newspaper and generally does not keep up with politics.
“I guess the only thing I can do at this point is pray for our country,” Beiler said. “I don’t feel I could make much of a difference by voting.”
John King, a former farmer, is a guide at Aaron and Jessica’s Buggy Rides, a tourist operation on Plain and Fancy Farm in Leacock Township.
“I’ve never voted, but my dad used to,” said King, who added that he didn’t believe he knows Amish PAC organizer Ben King.
He said his dad eventually stopped voting, and that he shares his father’s viewpoint.
“I think that one way or another, we’re going to get the government we deserve,” King said.
King said he is aware of who the candidates are.
“Oh yes. I don’t think they are very good ones this time,” King said. “But I probably shouldn’t say that.”