Making a plain pitch for Trump support in Lancaster’s Amish community

Auctioneer Mark Glick

Auctioneer Mark Glick

With Election Day less than two months away, the Trump campaign is doubling down its efforts in Pennsylvania. The commonwealth is on the short list of states the Republican has to win in order to clinch the election.

Donald Trump’s currently lagging in state polls, though the margin may be shrinking. But his campaign is hoping turning out more people who don’t vote regularly may help him out.

One pro-Trump PAC is taking that idea to the extreme. It’s targeting a voting group that doesn’t even use the internet — the Amish.

Who are these voters?

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One is Lancaster farmer and carpenter John Riehl. He can sometimes be found the Bird-in-Hand farmers market manning his vegetable stand.

Like many of the vendors at the market, Riehl wears the full beard and suspenders of the Amish.

Lancaster County has one of the largest settlements of the “Plain People” in the country. Out of Pennsylvania’s total of about 65,000 Amish, the county is home to more than 35,000.

Out here, horse-drawn buggies seem nearly as plentiful as cars. And it’s easy to feel like the concerns of 2016 — for instance, the impending election — aren’t quite as pressing.

Speaking with Riehl, though, it’s clear that’s not the case. He’s tuned in.

“There’s just a lot of things I don’t approve of that’s going on,” Riehl said, when asked about his political beliefs. “You know, I think they’re working the wrong way. That’s basically why I’m after Trump.”

Riehl’s not the only one.

And that’s where Amish PAC comes in — the group has made it its mission to sell as many of the Amish on Trump as possible

An unlikely alliance

Based in Virginia, the PAC has spent several months specifically targeting voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio — the only state with a larger Amish population. Both states are considered key to the presidential race.

But if selling the Amish on Trump seems like an odd fit, that’s because it is.

Donald Kraybill, senior fellow emeritus at Elizabethtown College and an expert on Amish culture, said in many ways, the Amish are polar opposites of the ostentatious Trump.

“Bankruptcy and divorce are both causes for excommunication in the Amish church. And Trump has a record of both of those,” Kraybill said. “And secondly … one of the highest virtues in Amish life is humility. And Trump doesn’t particularly display very much humility.”

Ben King, Amish PAC’s Pennsylvania outreach director, conceded Kraybill’s point.

But, he said, at the end of the day, those incongruities don’t matter as much as one might think.

“My perspective is, we’re never going to have somebody that’s perfect run for president,” he said. “It’s not the president’s job to put the moral standard of the country in place. It’s the church’s job. That’s the church’s responsibility.”

An enthusiastic Trump supporter, King joined the businessman’s bandwagon when neurosurgeon Ben Carson dropped out of the race early on.

He’s also in a unique position to be running Amish PAC’s Pennsylvania outreach. A lifelong Lancaster resident, King was actually brought up Amish. He only left the church three years ago.

He said he knows what makes the Amish tick, and notes that Trump’s qualities that resonate with him also resonate with lots of Amish people.

“We have a lot in common with business — I’m a business owner as well,” he said. “I can relate a lot to how he approaches things. And he has a common-sense business approach, he knows how to make the bottom line work, where most politicians really don’t.”

However, it’s clear that appealing to the Amish, and inspiring the Amish to actually vote are very different things.

Traditionally, few Amish vote

Kraybill is skeptical the PAC’s efforts will pay off in any meaningful way. For one thing, Amish voter turnout is notoriously low. Amish women, for instance, rarely vote.

“When we talk about 65,000 in the state of Pennsylvania, over half of those are under 18 years of age. And half of those are women. And half of the, probably, three-quarters of the remaining men have never voted, and probably never will,” he said.

What’s more, Kraybill said he doubts the PAC’s work in the last few months will even make much of a difference.

To understand why, he explained, you have to look back to 2004 — that’s when President George W. Bush made some fairly historic inroads with Amish voters during his re-election campaign.

About 1,300 Amish turned out that year. Bush ran a close race in Pennsylvania, but ultimately lost the state by a few points.Kraybill said it’s debatable whether the Amish had an impact that year. He does add, though, that the outreach methods used in that election were ideal.

“The effort was — in 2004 — was very grass-roots driven by Amish people themselves in Lancaster County,” he said. “It had a very local feel.”

This year, he said, the operation is different.

“This is an outside effort coming in. I just don’t think there will be as much traction this time around, and I’m skeptical that there would be more than 500 or so voting,” he said.

“But,” he added, “no one really knows.”

Freedom to vote — or not

For the 2016 election, the bulk of the money Amish PAC budgeted for Pennsylvania has gone to advertising. The group’s first effort was, as fundraising manager Ben Walters said, to introduce Trump to the Amish through billboards and newspaper advertisements.

Now the group is doing outreach to get voters registered.

Walters said he thinks it’ll be worthwhile in the end, though he avoided speaking in overly strong terms.

“It depends on how close the election is,” he said. “Certainly if somebody wins Pennsylvania handily then no, the Amish aren’t going to make a difference.”

Still, Walters said, it can’t hurt to try.

And as for the Amish? John Riehl, for one, has heard of the PAC. But he said he doesn’t really care about it, one way or another. Really, he just wants to be able to live his life.

“Each person’s supposed to be able to vote who they want, and you know … there’s probably a lot of things going on that shouldn’t be going on, really,” he said.

“For instance, the pressure on certain cultures … that shouldn’t be. It’s supposed to be a state of freedom, of freedom of speech. And that’s something that we’re losing in the U.S.”

And it seems to Riehl, if Trump says he is the man who will preserve that freedom, so be it.

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