When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) took the stage last night to declare victory in the Iowa Republican caucuses, he opened his triumphant speech with a direct appeal to the people who worked so hard to secure him his win — evangelical Christians.
“God bless the great state of Iowa,” he said. “Let me first of all say: to God be the glory.”
Cruz went on to make several more biblical references, working a litany of scripture passages and appeals to “Judeo-Christian values” into a 30-minute speech that often sounded suspiciously sermonesque. He then concluded by citing Psalm 30, stirring the crowd into a frenzy by reminding them that “joy cometh in the morning.”
“I tell you tonight, Iowa has made clear to America and the world: morning is coming,” he said.
Cruz’s engagement with Christianity on the campaign trail is nothing new, as he’s made no secret of his evangelical strategy. He launched his run for president at Liberty University, an evangelical school, courted the endorsement of leading theological conservatives in Iowa, and organized a passionate network of conservative Christian volunteers to help him get out the vote on caucus day.
And in Iowa, at least, it worked. Evangelicals flooded caucus sites across the state last night, ultimately making up 64 percent of Republican caucus-goers — up 7 points from 2012 — according to entrance polls. And despite ample hand-wringing from political analysts over Donald Trump’s support among portions of the evangelical flock, the biggest slice of churchgoers sided with Cruz: he won the lion’s share of “born again” Christians at 34 percent, with Trump grabbing 22 percent and Sen. Marco Rubio — a Roman Catholic — pulling in 21 percent.
Cruz’s success was clearly rooted in his laser-focused dedication to so-called “values voters,” conservative Christians who historically support candidates that share their faith and take right-wing positions on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion (i.e., opposing both). Cruz carried 38 percent of those who believed a candidate’s most important quality is that they “share my values,” compared to 21 percent who supported Rubio and 15 percent who caucused for Ben Carson. Trump, by contrast, only snagged 5 percent of the same group, adding further evidence to the theory that the real estate mogul is engaging an unusual slice of the GOP electorate — including voters who proudly claim an evangelical faith but don’t actually go to church that often.
It would be easy to dismiss this as an unsurprising result, especially given that Iowa Republicans have a long history of backing Christian conservatives such as Mike Huckabee (2008) and Rick Santorum (2012). But a Pew survey released last week hints that Cruz’s God-talk, common among GOP candidates, is actually unusually effective this year: a full 53 percent of Republicans say that there is “too little” discussion of religion and prayer from political leaders this campaign season (only 39 percent said the same in 2012). The number is even larger among white evangelical Protestants — Cruz’s core constituency — 68 percent of whom wish candidates would talk more about their faith, compared to 55 percent who said the same in 2012.
This growing hunger for religious rhetoric also helps explain the unexpected surge of support for Marco Rubio, who only recently shifted to a faith-focused campaign. In the weeks before the caucus, he released a religion-specific ad trumpeting his Christian credentials, tweaked his stump speech to include more reflections on his faith, and used the debates as a way to highlight his beliefs.
“My faith will not just influence the way I'll govern as president, it will influence the way I live my life,” Cruz said last week during a presidential debate, pivoting to religion while responding to an unrelated question about Gov. Chris Christie. “Because in the end, my goal is not simply to live on this earth for 80 years, but to live an eternity with my creator.”
Still, while prayerful pandering helped Cruz — and Rubio — in Iowa, it’s not clear if the strategy will work out for him next week during the New Hampshire primary. Donald Trump currently holds a sizable lead in New Hampshire, one of the least religious states in the country, second only to Vermont. Yet Cruz has reportedly doubled-down on his religious rhetoric while campaigning in the state, where evangelical voters make up a significantly smaller fraction of the GOP electorate. The equation doesn’t bode well for Cruz, especially since the Granite State is notorious for playing the contrarian during elections.
But Cruz might not have to worry about New Hampshire, because the primary season is front-loaded with states primed to resonate with his evangelical message. The next primary after New Hampshire is South Carolina, one of the most-religious states in the union. The Nevada caucuses on February 23 might offer a chance for other candidates to catch up, but then the election calendar shifts back to the Bible Belt, with deeply religious Georgia and Cruz’s home state of Texas — which claims a sizable number of delegates — both holding their primaries on March 1. Florida and North Carolina — another church-going state — hold their GOP primaries later in March, deep into the time period when many candidates are expected to have already dropped out. It’s an campaign season tailor-made for any candidate capable of moving conservative Christians from the pews to the polls.
Granted, it’s getting harder for candidates on both sides of the aisle to talk about their faith without being challenged, and other White House hopefuls are already finding ways to try and discredit Cruz’s beliefs as somehow disingenuous — albeit largely unsuccessfully thus far. And Cruz’s rabid embrace of a single constituency could prove to be his undoing if other candidates such as Rubio and Trump manage to cobble together a broader coalition of support. The GOP electorate also has a habit of gravitating to more moderate candidates as the primary season wanes on, and Cruz hasn’t proven himself capable of courting many voters outside the evangelical faithful.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with the prevailing logic of Cruz’s finely tuned, data-focused evangelical strategy. And if Rubio’s own shift to the spiritual is any indication, this election season is about to get a lot more religious.