In South Carolina’s evangelical-dominated Republican primary on Saturday, Donald Trump won 33 percent of the evangelical vote. In Tuesday’s Nevada primary, Trump upped the ante, claiming 40 percent of evangelical votes. And while it was jarring in both cases to see a Biblically illiterate, divorced billionaire win over such a sizable portion of America’s conservative faithful, an equally curious phenomenon has unfolded in the shadows of Trump’s victories: evangelical voters’ relative ambivalence toward Ted Cruz.
From the outset of the race, the senator from Texas has positioned himself as an evangelical-friendly candidate, emphasizing his religious upbringing (vis-a-vis his pastor father Rafael Cruz) and rolling out the harsh rhetoric on classic culture-war issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. Cruz’s push for evangelical votes was more than a perfunctory shout-out to an important Republican base: Inspiring vast, energetic evangelical support was a key strategy for the Cruz campaign, despite other Republican analysts’ misgivings. As Robert Draper reported in The New York Times, Cruz advisers estimated that “10 million [evangelical] voters who did not vote in the 2000 election turned out for Bush in 2004 and have stayed home since.” They hoped to stir these missing evangelicals to pull out a Cruz victory, although others, including former George W. Bush advisers, suspected the 10 million number was wildly inflated.
But if the Cruz campaign was still hoping, up until last night, that evangelicals would emerge en masse behind him, they’re now likely rethinking their game plans. While polling did reveal higher-than-usual evangelical turnout in Nevada, those voters hardly united behind Cruz, who finished both third overall and third among evangelicals, taking only 23 percent of the evangelical vote to Trump’s 40 and Marco Rubio’s 26.
Numbers like those would spell disaster for Cruz in next week’s Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses. All along, Cruz has hinged his hopes for the nomination in no small part on riding the evangelical vote to a sweep of the Southern states—six of which, including his home state of Texas, vote on March 1. But with Trump’s recent victories and little evidence of evangelical momentum on the rise behind Cruz, that pathway to the nomination no longer looks promising.
What explains Cruz’s lack of traction among evangelicals?According to Lydia Bean, author of The Politics of Evangelical Identity, the campaign’s first mistake was imagining evangelicals as a unified bloc during primary season. “I don’t think it’s particularly unusual or significant that evangelicals aren’t uniting,” Bean says. “I think what this shows is that evangelicals are fractured in general.” Bean points out that evangelicals differ not only in their politics—with some identifying as more conservative and others as more moderate—but in their religiosity.
“Evangelicals who don’t go to church very much but identify as Christian, with Christian nationalistic rhetoric, but aren’t very well formed or advised by Christian community leaders—they’re going for Trump,” Bean says. “I think Ted Cruz is picking up the older, more observant people who are theologically and politically conservative, the people who actually go to church every week.” Rubio, meanwhile, “is picking up the younger, more cosmopolitan evangelicals, the Reformocon people.”
In other words, while evangelicals tend to vote as a solid Republican bloc in general elections, there are (as with any religious group) distinctions within their ranks. And while Cruz might have shaped his message to appeal to a particular subset of evangelicals, that portion simply hasn’t shown itself to be large enough to deliver on Cruz’s hopes for an evangelical blowout.
“Cruz is operating with a pretty familiar script to reach conservative Christian white voters,” says Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. “What I think is happening is that Trump’s appeal to ‘make America great again’ has really swamped the boat for Cruz. So his traditional playbook of reaching out to white Christian voters in the way candidates have in the past has been upended by Trump.”
Jones suspects that Trump’s messaging touches upon a cluster of impulses and emotions that underpin the kind of Christian-identified, nationalistic politics Bean observes among less-churched evangelicals. “I think Trump may have tapped something that’s deeper than religious identity or culture-war issues: this deep anxiety that white conservative Christian culture is passing from the scene,” Jones says. “So Trump’s appeal to bring back an America that many conservative white evangelicals feel is slipping away turned out to be a more powerful appeal than a checklist of issues ... or even someone saying, ‘Hey, I’m one of you,’ an identity appeal.”
While Trump has served up a new message, and Rubio projects a future-looking freshness, Cruz has relied on an old-school pitch to evangelicals—hitting hard on culture war issues, emphasizing the depths of his own faith, delivering sermons from the stump. But evangelicals have heard it all before: From Ronald Reagan onward, Republicans have been pledging their fidelity to the faith and promising to advance the evangelicals’ social agenda once elected. But more than 30 years after the evangelical voting bloc began amassing in the 1980s, Roe v. Wade has not been overturned, same-sex marriage is the law of the land, and federal funding for abstinence-only sex education is under fire. It’s no wonder, then, that some evangelicals feel abandoned by Republicans—and it should come as no surprise that such feelings can easily translate into support for a figure like Trump, whose promises are less issue-oriented, more thematic, and more viscerally revanchist.
But even for more traditional evangelical voters, there are plenty of reasons to doubt Cruz. “Another of Ted Cruz’s problems is, he’s just not warm,” Bean says. “It’s hard for him to compete with Marco Rubio in seeming like a warm, pious guy, a sincere guy. Ted Cruz sounds like he’s laying it on too thick, Marco Rubio is more plausible as a Christian leader.”
Even the purity of Cruz’s social views has come into question at times: He’s faced well-publicized attacks on his consistency on social issues like same-sex marriage from the likes of Trump and Mike Huckabee, himself a pastor and former evangelical favorite. More troubling yet, Cruz’s opponents have had some success depicting the senator as an underhanded, dishonest competitor. The Cruz campaign has been marred by a series of mini-scandals surrounding accusations of lying: First, Cruz campaign officials allegedly told Iowa caucus-goers that fellow evangelical Ben Carson had dropped out of the race when he had not; later, the Rubio campaign claimed that Cruz operatives had perpetrated the same scam in South Carolina via robocall, this time falsely stating that Rubio was out of the running. Most recently Cruz was forced to fire his communications director for misquoting Rubio in an attack ad designed to make Rubio appear to dismiss the Bible as containing few “answers.”
The unsavoriness of a purportedly pious evangelical repeatedly deploying underhanded campaign tactics was not lost on Trump, who has developed the Cruz campaign’s issues with the truth into an evangelical-specific line of attack.
Cruz’s failure to capture evangelical hearts (and votes) stems from a confluence of factors: a message less inspiring than his competitors’, an outdated playbook with limited reach, and a persona increasingly associated with rank dishonesty. Unfortunately for Cruz, none of those issues appears to be immediately salvageable, and in many ways they make his competitors for evangelical attention appear both connected with voters (in Trump’s case) and sincere (in Rubio’s) by contrast.
If Super Tuesday doesn’t deliver the evangelical-driven Southern sweep Cruz is banking on, it’ll not only signal a major obstacle for the Cruz campaign, but a warning to all GOP hopefuls who come after him: The old-fashioned model of reaching evangelicals no longer appears functional, and Republican politicians will have to re-evaluate their strategies for reaching and inspiring the party’s biggest religious voting bloc.