So I’m back from two weeks in Italy — ah, the wines of Puglia! the hills of Tuscany! — only to discover Donald Trump at the head of the Republican presidential pack, with more support from the party’s white evangelical base than any of the other GOP wannabes. Specifically, the latest national poll (from CNN/ORC) has Trump leading his nearest rival, Jeb Bush, 18.2 percent to 13.7 percent overall, and supported by white evangelicals over their number 2 choice Ted Cruz 21 percent to 12 percent.
So what’s the appeal of the thrice-married, loud-mouthed New Yorker to church-going Baptists and Pentecostals?
Over at CBN, David Brody contends that it’s his “boldness.” Like evangelicals, Trump is a no-shades-of-gray type of guy who “operates in a world of absolutes: A world of right and wrong; a world of winners (him) and losers (McCain, Perry, etc); a world of put up or shut up (literally). Trump’s world is colored in black and white.”
Maybe so, but the fact is that Trump is doing no better among white evangelicals than he is among white people generally — 21 percent percent versus 22 percent. White evangelicals are simply responding to the Trump bump the same way other white Americans are — he gets no disproportionate support from them for black-and-white thinking.
No doubt, evangelicals would not be on board if Trump showed himself to be less than orthodox on the social issues. But for all his boldness, he has toed the party line on same-sex marriage (“I’m for traditional marriage”) and declared his conversion from pro-choice to pro-life on abortion.
Thus far, the only candidate showing disproportionate strength among evangelicals is Cruz, who is now drawing twice as much support from them as from the public at large. If anyone is to play the role of evangelical white knight that Pat Robertson did in 1988, or Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum in 2004 and 2008 respectively, it would appear to be Cruz.
But at the moment, the junior senator from Texas is not on the rise where he needs to be. In Iowa, where white evangelicals are the force to be reckoned with in the GOP caucuses, his support has shrunk 50 percent over the past month, from 10 percent to five percent. It’s been four months since he announced, and his candidacy appears to be going nowhere.
In a word, the evangelical vote is no less up for grabs than any other GOP constituency this election cycle.