US & Canada

Can this political group get the Amish to vote for Trump?

Amish watching truck parade
Image caption There are large Amish communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania - two key battleground states

The Amish are a conservative, Christian group of people who don't watch TV, drive cars or use the internet - and they don't typically vote in national elections. A group of Donald Trump supporters is hoping to change that.

"You have to imagine what it would be like if you had never seen a Trump tweet, if you'd never seen him debate, if you had never watched a rally on YouTube, if you were learning about Trump essentially for the first time," says Ben Walters, the Washington-based fundraising director of Amish Pac, a political action committee dedicated to getting the Amish to vote for Trump.

"That's basically the situation we're in - where we are introducing Trump to the last pocket of voters who really don't know who he is."

One of the locations Amish Pac is focusing on is Berlin, Ohio, the heart of the state's Amish community, where people claim to know little about Mr Trump, although quite a few know he is a billionaire.

On a recent Friday night, Berlin's main street was packed with horse-drawn buggies and Amish families lining the streets to enjoy a free bluegrass concert and a passing truck parade. The older generation spoke amongst themselves in "Pennsylvania Dutch", a German dialect passed down from ancestors who came here from Europe.

Image caption People in Amish communities rarely vote in presidential elections

The Amish are exempt from paying some taxes, and they don't receive Social Security or disability benefits from the government. Because of that, many people think the Amish aren't eligible to vote. They can vote, but they often choose not to exercise that right.

"I guess we'll leave it up to God," John Erb says, when asked why he and other Amish rarely vote.

Mr Erb was much more talkative than most of the Amish I met. At 65, he gives tourists buggy rides around town and is used to talking with "the English," as the Amish refer to people outside their faith. He says he doesn't know much about Mr Trump or his likely opponent Hillary Clinton but he's not impressed with President Barack Obama.

Image caption Amish communities typically reject modern technology

"Just look at all he let come in to this world," Mr Erb says. "Supporting all these kids that don't want to work. We all help pay debt and they're out on the streets doing whatever they want and they're on disability and not working and they don't want to work."

Mr Erb says the Amish community has been shocked by the pace of social change in the United States. They don't understand gay marriage at all. He was upset and genuinely curious about how people could support same-sex unions or the rights of transgender people.

"I think the end of the world is not far off because people are acting worse than animals anymore," he said. "I'm sorry, but I believe that."

But the Amish are also pacifists and if Mr Erb's views on guns are typical, then they don't align with those of the Republican party or the powerful National Rifle Association.

He says mass shootings are also a frequent topic among the Amish. They can't believe how permissive gun laws have become.

We spoke the day after five police officers were killed in Dallas, following the killing of two black men by police. He had heard the news from a non-Amish friend and was heartbroken.

Image caption The Amish are socially conservative, but many support more restrictions on guns

"Years back, boy if anybody got caught with any kind of gun on a vehicle or anything like that, my goodness they were in deep water," Erb says. "Now they've got the right to carry them along right into the stores."

"We use guns to go hunt deer, turkey for meat but we don't carry guns. If someone's going shoot me then they'll just shoot me.

"I'd rather be shot than be the one that did the shooting. Because I don't think we should be out there killing people like that."

At a store on Berlin's main street, Raymond Hagood sells Amish country souvenirs but also toilet paper emblazoned with Mrs Clinton's face, magnets trumpeting Mr Trump and depicting Mrs Clinton as Pinocchio.

The Trump magnets are his best sellers. "For every Hillary magnet we sell, we sell about 20 or 25. So I don't know if magnets predict outcomes, but it's fascinating."

Image caption Campaign souvenirs are popular items at a store near Ohio's Amish country

Mr Hagood thinks the Amish know more about Mr Trump than they let on - and he claims to know plenty who plan to vote for him.

The highest Amish voter turnout in a presidential race was in 2004, as President George W Bush ran for re-election. About 13% of registered Amish voters cast ballots, according to Amish PAC's Walters. Almost all of those votes were likely for Mr Bush, an evangelical Christian who met with Amish leaders while campaigning.

That year, Mr Bush narrowly defeated John Kerry in Ohio - by just 118,601 votes. But Mr Bush lost Pennsylvania - another state with a large Amish population - by 144,248 votes.

One of Amish Pac's goals is to raise voter turnout over the 2004 level. According to Amish Studies at the Young Center, an authority on the Amish, there are just over 70,000 Amish people in Ohio and about the same in Pennsylvania. And nearly half of them are eligible to vote.

About a mile down the road from John's buggy stand, Jo Ann Hershberger owns and operates Schrock's Heritage Village - a sprawling tourist destination showcasing all things Amish - cheese, crafts, cookies, furniture - and the Amish way of life.

Ms Hershberger was born Amish but her parents left the church when she was a child.

She distinctly remembers the first time she was allowed to wear trousers instead of a long dress as a girl.

Image caption Ms Hershberger has urged her Amish friends to vote

"As time went on, my mother and father realised that trousers aren't going to keep you out of heaven," she said, wearing shorts and a powder blue T-shirt.

Ms Hershberger supports Mr Trump for president and has been challenging her Amish friends and employees to do the same. She says the Amish people who vote typically only do so in local elections.

Would Amish or Mennonite women possibly turn out for Mrs Clinton, I ask?

"I do not believe for one minute that any Amish people would vote for Hillary Clinton," she says. "They see the males of the world as the ones as in control of things."

Ms Hershberger and other non-Amish locals warned me that the Amish wouldn't talk with a reporter on record - but dozens of them did, albeit briefly. This was before the Amish PAC's first ad was rolled out in Amish Country, but I couldn't find anyone planning to vote for Mr Trump or Mrs Clinton.


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Mr Walters of the Amish Pac says that will be a different story in a few months. So far they've raised almost $25,000 and they hope to raise a total of $40,000 by election day to pay for local newspaper ads, billboards and paper flyers to be distributed by volunteers.

That's a small amount compared with the multimillion dollar TV and social media campaigns that target the rest of us. But it's more than enough to blanket Amish country with pro-Trump ads.

The Amish Pac's first newspaper ad was published this month. The advert highlights Mr Trump's family-run business, his commitment to appoint an anti-abortion Supreme Court justice and the fact that he does not drink alcohol.

Recent polls show Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump in a virtually tie in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"These two states being the most important, crucial swing states. … We realize that a couple thousand votes could truly make a difference, especially if we have a situation like we did in 2000 where it comes down to a few polling places in one swing state," Mr Walters said, referring to the election recount in Florida.

"The Amish could, in theory, swing the presidential election of 2016."