From Donald Trump's Twitter feed, to the nonstop cable news coverage, the 2016 election has been nothing if not digital. For most of the country this has made politics inescapable, but not for the technology-averse Amish community, who are at a considerable remove from the election. But now, a brand new super PAC is trying change that. The aptly named Amish PAC calls itself "the first Super PAC dedicated to getting plain voters [using a common term referencing the Amish lifestyle] to the polls."
Amish PAC's co-founder, Ben Walters, said his group's goal is to mobilize a previously untapped bloc of conservative voters for a general election fight against Hillary Clinton. The group is focused on the key swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are each home to about 60,000 Amish people.
Walters is not Amish, nor is Amish PAC's treasurer and other co-founder Taylor Swindle. Walters lives in the Washington, DC, area and comes from the world of conservative political fundraising. Before creating Amish PAC, he fundraised for other causes such as the Republican National Committee, Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott's 2010 campaign and Ben Carson's former super PAC, The 2016 Committee.
The group has, however, brought on an outreach director who is a former member of the Amish church, Ben King, and lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In addition to working as a volunteer for Amish PAC, King is also the CEO of a business that builds Amish horse barns across the Northeast and in Florida.
Walters said in an interview that he and others started Amish PAC to reach out to this culturally isolated community, basically because no one else had tried it yet.
"It became clear that Republicans were doing a bad job of reaching out to probably one of the most deeply conservative pockets of potential voters in the country," he said.
Reaching out to those voters won't be easy. The Amish are descendants of the Anabaptist sect of Christianity originating in 17th century Europe and their lifestyle hasn't changed much since. Most Amish live in relatively isolated farming communities that reject pretty much any form of modern technology invented after the printing press — that means no smartphones, no television and in most cases, no electricity.
"They're a face-to-face, oral culture," Donald Kraybill, a leading expert on the Amish at Pennsylvania's Elizabethtown College, said. "It takes a lot of legwork to go to where they are and raise their consciousness."
This means that the typical super PAC methods — advertisements on television, radio or the internet — won't be effective in these communities. So Amish PAC is taking a less high-tech approach and plans to place advertisements in local print newspapers and on billboards throughout Amish country in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Walters said that Amish PAC's old-school advertising strategy appeals to donors, since ads placed in local newspaper and on remote billboards are cheaper and a more efficient use of donor funds. The group formed officially just last month and has not yet filed fundraising figures with the Federal Election Commission.
The group is raising money through existing donor networks that were set up to support past Republican primary candidates before they dropped out of the presidential race. They've begun with the 2016 Committee, which is now urging former Carson supporters via email plea to donate to Amish PAC for the general election fight.
"I believe Dr. Carson's candidacy paved the way for a surge in Amish voter participation this November," King writes in one such fundraising email. "I know it may sound crazy[,] but an increase of Amish voter turnout in November would spell VERY bad news for Hillary Clinton."
Why? King argues in his email that the Amish strongly oppose basic tenets of the Democratic party and that they strongly support "biblical values, protecting the unborn, gun rights, religious freedom, less taxes and less government."
Donald Trump has been criticized by evangelical Christians for his failure to focus on religious values and lack of social conservative views — for example, his changing views on abortion — during the primary election. But Walters is still confident that Amish PAC's efforts can mobilize a significant number of Amish people to vote for the presumptive Republican nominee — at least in opposition to Clinton.
Walters points out that Trump won Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is home to one of the largest concentrations of Amish in the country, with about 44 percent of the vote, compared to Ted Cruz's 31 percent. (It's worth noting, however, that Trump won every county in Pennsylvania by a significant margin).
"Increasing Amish turnout by even 5% in 2016 could be the difference between a Republican president and Hillary Clinton," Amish PAC's website says, assuredly.
But others within the Amish community and those who have studied them are more skeptical. The Amish have historically low voter turnout, in part because their church discourages them from participating in politics, including holding public office or even voting for the nation's commander-in-chief, since they are conscientious objectors to war, Kraybill said.
The Amish theology is based on the notion that "we're in this world but not of this world," said Erik Wesner, another expert on the Amish and founder of the website Amish America. This outlook extends to their views toward US politics, which means "they'll pray for our leaders but don't necessarily vote for them," he said.
Even King, Amish PAC's own outreach director, is unsure whether the group is going to make a big difference in turning out the Amish vote.
"The church leaders hold a lot of influence over the congregation," King said. "And they tend to shy away from being involved in, or encouraging the community to get out the vote."
Perhaps because of the Amish's low political engagement, presidential candidates generally have not made efforts to reach out to the Amish in past elections. The exception was during the 2004 presidential race, when George W. Bush met with members of the Amish community in Lancaster in an attempt to woo the horse and buggy crowd. He won that county by 66 percent (although he ended up losing Pennsylvania overall to John Kerry).
"Bush's style was a little more homespun and evangelical religious, which appealed to [the Amish]," Kraybill said. "But that was an anomaly," he added, saying that he does not expect this year's GOP candidate to generate the same amount of excitement.
Many Amish are "put off by [Trump's] hubris, self-serving style and language," Kraybill said.
Even if Amish PAC penetrates the remote farming communities of rural Ohio and Pennsylvania with their targeted ad campaign, the eventual payout is likely to be small. Only a fraction of the 60,000 Amish residents in Ohio and Pennsylvania are of adult voting age and even fewer are registered, since women are generally discouraged from voting. Kraybill estimates that only about 4,000 to 5,000 Amish votes are in play in Ohio and Pennsylvania, which is probably not enough to tip a swing state in one direction or the other.
Considering the scale of effort required to get the Amish's attention, Kraybill said, "it's not worth the effort, frankly."
Those at Amish PAC are aware of the uphill battle ahead of them. But that doesn't mean it's not still worth a shot, King said, especially during an election that has seen such a momentous increase in new and infrequent voters.
"This has been a year of unprecedented things happening in politics," he remarked. "I think [the Amish] understand, more than ever, that our world is changing a lot and that may or may not urge them to get out and vote."
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @oliviaLBecker