The latest numbers from Iowa show Ted Cruz pulling ahead of Donald Trump by five points on the strength of white evangelicals flocking to his candidacy. Representing some two-thirds of Republican caucus-goers, Iowa evangelicals now support Cruz over Trump 30 percent to 18 percent.
The trouble for Cruz is that as the Iowa Republican caucus goes, so usually does not go the GOP presidential nomination. In the six caucuses since 1980 where an incumbent Republican president has not been running, Iowa Republicans have supported the eventual nominee only twice: Bob Dole from nearby Kansas in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000.
New Hampshire Republicans, batting second in the primary lineup, have a much better average, going four for six. They only struck out in the two years Iowa got it right, voting for Pat Buchanan in 1996 and John McCain in 2000. And at this point, Trump is rolling along in the Granite State, more than doubling his nearest rival, Chris Christie, 27 percent to 12 percent, with Cruz stuck in fourth place at 10 percent, in the most recent poll.
To be sure, white evangelicals are a lot thinner on the ground in the Granite State than they are in Iowa — or in the South, where Cruz might be expected to recover. Which brings us to South Carolina, third in the lineup and the best GOP predictor of the three. Indeed, the only time the state has missed the eventual nominee since 1980 is last time around, when Republicans rejected Mitt Romney in favor of Newt Gingrich, during the former Speaker’s brief moment in the presidential sun.
Currently, Trump is on a roll in South Carolina with 35 percent — 20 points ahead of Ben Carson and 21 points over Marco Rubio and Cruz in the latest poll. He draws the support of fully 34 percent of the white evangelicals in the state, as compared to Carson’s 18 percent and Cruz’s 14 percent.
Cruz’s problem in South Carolina may be that, whereas in Iowa white evangelicals vote like white evangelicals, in the South they vote like white Southerners. That is to say, Southern evangelicals — who represent the majority of white Southerners — may be more attracted to the nativism of Trump than to the evangelicalism of Cruz. If you want to know what I’m talking about, just ask North Carolinian Franklin Graham.
Update: If you want confirmation, take a look at these new numbers from Georgia.