What a race it’s been for both parties.
Ted Cruz won Iowa with 27.6 percent of all votes. According to the CNN entrance poll, 34 percent of self-identified evangelicals voted for Cruz, 22 percent voted for Trump and 21 percent voted for Rubio.
Donald Trump won New Hampshire with 35.3 percent of all votes. CNN’s exit poll shows that 27 percent of self-identified evangelicals voted for Trump, 23 percent voted for Cruz and 13 percent voted for Rubio.
How do we explain why Cruz got more evangelical support in Iowa and Trump in New Hampshire? The short answer is that the electorate is different in each state. Rick Santorum rode the evangelical vote to a win in the 2012 Iowa caucuses, yet more evangelical voters sided with Romney in the subsequent New Hampshire primary. Political analysts point to patterns from previous elections showing that Iowan Republicans are more conservative than other Republicans and that New Hampshire voters pride themselves on creating upsets or unexpected turns in the race.
What is clear, however, is that while Rubio hangs around third, the Iowa and New Hampshire triumphs tell us that Cruz and Trump are neck-to-neck for the evangelical vote. Iowa and New Hampshire are not a representative sample of the rest of the nation, but they do paint a very telling picture of what to expect for the rest of the race. There’s a reason that these first-to-vote states are known as the gatekeepers to the nomination. Since 1976, the winner of either Iowa or New Hampshire has gone on to win their party’s nomination (the one exception is Bill Clinton, who lost both in 1992). Perhaps this election year, we’ll see another exception. If anything, the Trump-factor proves that the laws of political gravity don’t govern the political universe as cohesively as they once did. It’s a wonder to me that Trump is able to rally so much evangelical support, and a hanging mystery I’d prefer to tackle later after more research.
Meanwhile, let’s talk about why Christians love Cruz.
Cruz, the son of a Cuban preacher, has strategically positioned himself in the evangelical field in several ways. First, arguably no Republican candidate has been more outspoken about his personal faith than Ted Cruz. In the first line of his first campaign ad, Cruz credits “the transformative love of Jesus Christ” for nurturing him in a single-parent household. After winning the Iowa Caucus, he opened his victory speech with a simple, yet now-familiar invocation: “To God be the glory.” These frequent invocations create an aura that primes listeners who associate such buzzwords with qualities they look for in a candidate. A 2015 poll shows that, compared to the general population, evangelicals are five times more likely to say that faith is an important factor in choosing a candidate. To be sure, other candidates like Marco Rubio calibrate their campaign language to include creeds of personal faith. Cruz just does it more.
Secondly, Cruz makes a critical link between his faith and that of the American people. As I mentioned last time, Cruz asserts that a faithful America and a prosperous America are inextricably linked. This is a powerful message, layered in all sorts of symbolism and allusions to American tradition and exceptionalism. Cruz propagates such a message by mobilizing Christian leaders to take his side. In Iowa, Cruz secured endorsements from local pastors in each of its 99 counties. The remarkable ground game he deployed and the success by which it was met at the night of the caucus explains his victory in Iowa. By voting for him, these “courageous conservatives”, as he called them, dealt a blow to the left-leaning media juggernaut, the “Washington Cartel”, and the conniving lobbyists.
The contrarian, battle-ready Cruz is also a member of the Tea Party, which has strong overlap with evangelical supporters. For many evangelicals — a substantial block of his audience — the “under assault, rising up” campaign of Ted Cruz embodies their underdog struggle to win back America. The so-called moral majority, finding itself swept aside in the culture war, sees in Cruz a resolved leader with the face of both their shared grievance of social decadence and shared hope for a nation that turns back to the principles and values bestowed by its Creator. Heidi Cruz recently went so far as to claim that her husband showed the “face of God that we serve.”
Whether that face will be the GOP nominee has yet to be decided. After an unimpressive outcome in New Hampshire, can Cruz go into South Carolina — a state with a powerful evangelical block — expecting to net the same outcome in Iowa? Time, and evangelical voters, will tell.