The religious right may be yesterday’s news, but its signal accomplishment, the white evangelical voting bloc, remains the Republican Party’s most important constituency. And it’s moving toward Ted Cruz.
The latest numbers from Iowa show Cruz neck and neck with Donald Trump thanks to evangelical support. According to Quinnipiac, it’s now Trump at 25 percent, Cruz at 23 percent, and Ben Carson slipping to 18 percent among all likely Republican caucus-goers. White evangelicals, who make up 60 percent of them, now favor Cruz over Carson, 27 percent to 24 percent, with Trump at 20 percent.
And as white evangelicals in Iowa go, so goes Evangelical Nation.
Cruz’s surge is no accident. As the Washington Post‘s Kate Zezima made clear in a fine piece of political reporting the other day, he has made appealing to evangelicals the centerpiece of his campaign strategy. The Baptist son of a popular Baptist minister, he announced his candidacy at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in March and he’s dedicated himself to lining up evangelical bigwigs.
He has no hesitancy about campaigning on the social issues of the day, denouncing the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision and standing up for Kentucky county clergy Kim Davis. On the church circuit, he uses the meme popularized a decade ago by Karl Rove: If all those evangelicals who didn’t come to the polls last time just turn out, the presidency is ours in a cakewalk.
“If 10 million more evangelical Christians show up in November 2016, we’re not going to be staying up until 3 in the morning wondering what happened in Ohio or Florida,” Cruz told a Baptist congregation in South Carolina earlier this month. “They’ll call the election at 8:35 p.m. That’s what 10 million more evangelical Christians at the polls will do.”
The problem is, it’s not going to happen. The white evangelical vote that has sustained the GOP since the rise of the religious right half a century ago is a shrinking portion of the electorate, as the following graphic dramatically demonstrates.
Bottom line? As the Democratic-voting Nones grow up and become frequent voters, the white evangelical base of the GOP is aging out. So if Ted Cruz manages to ride his evangelical strategy to the Republican nomination, the general election will make him a victim of his success.