1 of 3
Gerald Herbert, AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak to supporters at his primary election night event at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Behind is his son Eric Trump and Eric's wife Lara Yunaska. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

After a series of primary victories, Donald Trump has risen from laughable longshot to likely nominee, leading the Republican pack in polling and delegate count alike.

Trump's rise to the front of the GOP race is something the mainstream media didn't expect. In August, data-driven news site FiveThiryEight outlined what it called Trump's "Six Stages of Doom," ultimately predicting that despite an early surge of popularity, Trump's campaign would eventually crumble.

The Huffington Post, calling Trump's campaign "a sideshow" in July, chose to put Trump political coverage in the site's entertainment section — a miscalculation they remedied in December.

Now, with delegates from major states like South Carolina, Florida and Ohio under Trump's belt, no one is laughing.

While Trump’s unconventional style has bewildered mainstream media outlets, the Republican frontrunner poses a unique test for smaller, values-focused news outfits that serve the very audience some say paved the way for Trump’s victory in many southern states: Christian voters, particularly Evangelicals.

Faith-focused media outlets have been slow to call Trump out on inconsistencies between his actions and his Christian faith. Divisions within the faith community about Trump have also resulted in a mixed approach to coverage among major faith news outlets like Christianity Today, the Christian Post, World Magazine, Tablet and Forward.

“A lot of journalists are wishing — and we’re wishing — (that) we’d looked harder at Trump sooner. We see this in retrospect,” World Magazine editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky said. “The assumption was he’d go away. Don’t assume just because he’s not to a journalist’s taste that he won’t be to the taste of voters."

Now, as the GOP faces the possiblity of a Trump nomination, media outlets have begun an onslaught of critical coverage Columbia Journalism School religion media professor Ari Goldman says should have started months ago — factual, probing reporting into Trump’s values, faith and background.

“There’s been a general media failure around Donald Trump, not limited to religious publications, because we’ve all been seduced by his ugly charisma, but maybe the religious press can learn from Pope Francis,” Goldman said, referencing the pontiff’s suggestion that someone sharing Trump’s personality traits may not be a Christian. “Just as the New York Times said several months ago in an editorial that Donald Trump is a racist, sometimes you have to just speak the truth.”

Coverage and character

The media's course correction on Trump is a response to what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen dubbed “the Trump emergency," which has come about because few media outlets took Donald Trump seriously between his June 2015 announcement to run for president and Super Tuesday in February.

But why have Christian media outlets (along with their mainstream counterparts) generally waited this long to take a hard look at the facts of Trump’s background?The answer may be that Christian news services and their target audiences differ significantly this election cycle on what’s most important in a candidate, and that presents a problem for Christian media outlets, said USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor Diane Winston.

“Media outlets seek to attract consumers, not repel them. Religious publications, especially those that have a broad constituency, are cautious about alienating their readership,” Winston said. “Since Trump has Evangelical supporters, some Christian publications are reluctant to say that his behavior and actions are un-Christian.”

For example, Olasky says character is of paramount concern at World Magazine when covering a candidate for a Christian audience. But as a general rule, he said the media has failed to bring Trump’s character to the forefront, again, because few took his candidacy seriously.

“I don’t think half of Alabama Republicans would vote for Trump if they were hearing day after day about his demonstrable failures of character — his repeated adulteries and bragging about them,” Olasky said. “He lacks the character to be president.”

Yet voters who participated in the primaries, many of whom self-identify as Evangelical Christians in polls, have shown that they care little about Trump’s character this election cycle, said Amy Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts school in Illinois.

“Trump isn’t going to win a character battle, but he’s not trying because it’s just not the case that people are voting on character this election cycle,” Black said. “When anger with the government is so high, people aren’t voting for character — they’re voting for change.”

Exit polling from the New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida GOP primaries bolster Black’s observations that character matters little in this election cycle compared to the need for change.

In New Hampshire, Republican voters said Trump best matched up with a candidate's most important quality — whether the candidate can win, tells it like it is or could bring about change. In both South Carolina and Florida, Trump was the choice for voters who cared most about immigration, the economy, terrorism and governement spending. In Florida, Trump also won the most voters who described themeselves as "dissatisfied" or "angry" with the government generally.

“He’s not an insider. His Biblical knowledge is scant, his idea of the Lord’s supper is odd and the way he talks about faith is not the way most people talk about their faith,” Black said. “(Christians) aren’t going, ‘He’s one of us.’ But they are saying, ‘He sounds like he might be able to protect us.’”

Unraveling ‘Evangelical’

Like the GOP, Christian faith groups are divided about Trump’s policy and lifestyle — especially Evangelicals, whom Trump has courted as a key Republican voting bloc. To understand the Christian media’s scattershot Trump coverage so far, media critics must recognize fragmentation within faith communities, USC communications professor Diane Winston said.

While Trump doesn't have a voting record to indicate how his faith may inform policy, Winston suggests his track record in the business world was likely significant to many Christian denominations.

“We think of things like gay marriage or abortion as being issues Christians care about, but especially conservative Evangelicals and Catholics care a lot about the economy and business,” Winston said. “His profile as a successful business man is very important for the idea of prosperity gospel, where God rewards those who are faithful with material wealth. If that’s your only measure, Trump’s an A number-one Christian.”

But the nature of Trump's prosperity is something World Magazine has begun to investigate since Trump's Super Tuesday wins. In the March 5 edition of World, a story titled "The Big Gamble" digs into Trump's casino enterprise in Atlantic City — arguably a boon for Trump's business acumen and economic outlook for the town — and raises questions about the moral and economic outcomes left in Trump's wake.

But to some evangelicals, Trump's reputation as a business man is qualification enough for the presidency. In his endorsement of Trump at Liberty University in January, Jerry Falwell Jr. said part of the reason he supported Trump was his wealth.

“He cannot be bought, he's not a puppet on a string like many other candidates ... who have wealthy donors as their puppet masters,” Falwell said during Trump’s visit to Liberty.

But Black pointed out that Evangelicals also lack the unifying leaders of decades past.

“The Evangelical movement is at a crossroads. The old guard —Jerry Falwell Sr., Pat Robertson — they don’t have the same influence they used to have,” Black said. “The question is, who are the new leaders? That’s in flux right now.”

Falwell Jr. doesn’t speak for the whole of Evangelicals, as is evident from the reaction to Falwell's Trump endorsement from Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around is the third temptation of Christ,” Moore tweeted following Falwell’s endorsement. “He overcame it. Will we?”

Christians are also frustrated with the political status quo, especially where faith issues are concerned. An outsider like Trump, his supporters generally believe, may get more done than a typical politician on issues like religious liberty, abortion or same-sex marriage. The King’s College professor and World Magazine contributor D.C. Innes said Trump's support among Christians is a response to conservative politicians history of failing faith causes in the past.

“Evangelicals, for example, became politically engaged to preserve their way of life and they don’t feel they’ve gotten their support’s worth from politicians. Abortion, gay marriage — they’ve lost on every front,” Innes said. “The support for Trump is an act of desperation: Protect us. We’re not free to be Christians anymore, so you’ve got my vote.”

Olasky and Get Religion media critic Terry Mattingly say these differences are further complicated when pollsters and mainstream media outlets use the loose definition of “Evangelical” to define a Christian voting bloc. In a post-Super Tuesday article recognizing the inconsistencies between Trump's supposed support among Evangelicals and fresh criticism from Evangelical leaders, Christianity Today highlighted new polling methods that could force pollsters and non-Christian media outlets to better flesh out the population behind “the e-word.”

"It’s striking that, just as Trump has seemingly secured support from evangelicals, many evangelicals leaders are criticizing him,'" Christianity Today reported.

Mattingly said there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that many active, church-going Evangelicals actually don’t support Trump.

“If you have 35 percent of voters who say they’re Evangelicals, you’re not ‘running away’ with the Evangelical vote.” Mattingly said. “If you lived in New York City and somebody had 25 to 38 percent of the Jewish vote, or in Utah, the Mormon vote, would you call that ‘running away’ with the vote?”

Poll results echo Mattingly’s argument. In a late February poll from Evangelical polling firm Barna Group, Republican Christian voters who said they attended church regularly and prayed at least once a week rated Trump near the bottom in a favorability rating. In the supposed Evangelical stronghold of voting precincts around Liberty University, where Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump, Trump finished in last place, with just 8 percent of voters supporting him.

All of this division and confusion about everything from beliefs to the definition of “Evangelical,” Winston said, has led to a Christian media that has avoided taking on Trump — until now. “In the last few weeks, as Trump has won more primaries and caucuses, some publications are jumping off the fence. Christian Post published a strong editorial on why Trump should not be supported by Evangelicals,” Winston wrote. “Prominent Evangelicals are going on NPR to explain why they will not support Trump. To publicly repudiate the leading Republican candidate in the secular media is a big deal, maybe even more significant than making the case in the Christian media.”

Olasky said that while it may have taken a while for Christian media outlets to focus on Trump outside of his vulgarity, the frontrunner is firmly in World’s editorial crosshairs moving forward— the magazine’s newest issue will follow the Atlantic City article with a look at Falwell Jr.’s endorsement of Trump.

“He said he’d make America great again. He’s ruined it,” Olasky said. “That’s why we sent a reporter to Atlantic City, we wanted to see what Trump had wrought. That’s why we’ll continue to look at his record.”

It’s early in the race, Olasky said, and he believes it’s still any candidate's to win. In the meantime, Olasky says their recent coverage of Trump in Atlantic City lost World a subscription.

“I know the sentiment out there that it’s a tough world and we need a tough guy. I suspect that part of Trump’s charm for folks,” Olasky said. “But our job is to educate and inform and if we’re doing that, there’s going to be a disconnect at times. It makes it lively. It means we’re doing our job.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson