When Ted Cruz announced last March that he was running for the Republican nomination for president, he did so at Liberty University. The nation’s largest evangelical university, Liberty was an unsurprising spot for Cruz to begin his campaign. More than any other Republican in the race, Cruz has based his entire campaign on winning evangelical voters as the pathway to his party’s nomination.
Yet the real surprise of 2016 is how poorly Cruz has performed among evangelicals. On Super Tuesday, Cruz lost in key Southern states like Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Virginia, in large part because he could not capture the evangelical vote. (Conversely, Cruz’s victories in Iowa, Texas, and Oklahoma have depended on winning evangelicals.)
The son of a preacher, Cruz often talks in the cadence of a revivalist. His outspoken positions against abortion rights and same-sex marriage have been the stock and trade of Religious Right politics for more than 30 years. Cruz’s promise to defend religious liberty, repeal Obamacare, and abolish the IRS have huge favor among conservative evangelicals.
Despite all this, evangelicals remain largely ambivalent about Cruz. Here are five reasons why:
1) Evangelicals are not a monolithic bloc. Counting more than 62 million Americans, evangelicals are a diverse group religiously, culturally, and economically. Due to their strong support for the Republican Party, evangelicals have often been seen as a homogenous constituency. Yet they are politically diverse as well. From election to election, between 25 to 35 percent of white evangelicals vote for the Democratic Party, but even among Republicans evangelicals range widely across the spectrum. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, both darlings of the Religious Right, courted this swath of voters with a broad conservative vision, but Cruz has wrongly gone after evangelical voters with a narrow and angry set of political issues that have limited appeal even among evangelicals. This is a misreading of both evangelical voters and the current political moment which leads to the next point…
2) This is not a “values” election. Following an Obama presidency and significant social transformations, especially the legalization of same-sex marriage, Cruz understandably has chosen a “culture war” strategy. Yet voters have indicated this election is about the economy and national security. While evangelicals care greatly about social matters like abortion and same-sex marriage, more than 30 years of election data show that these issues do not define their political decisions. As Cruz doubles down on such hot button issues, he misreads where this electorate, including evangelicals, are moving and miscalculates his approach for reaching them.
3) Evangelical voters don’t like Cruz. Cruz has staked his candidacy on his identity as a “Washington outsider,” but he has been unable to escape his reputation as unlikeable and a shady politico. While he talks in a familiar Biblical language, Cruz also comes across to many evangelicals as a shifty televangelist type, a loathed figure for many conservative evangelicals. Evangelicals have accused Cruz of being an opportunist who says one thing to voters in Iowa and another to donors in New York. For a candidate peddling authenticity as one of his chief virtues, Cruz’s inconsistencies come across as typical political chicanery. The Cruz campaign’s dirty tactics, including wrongly telling Iowa caucus-goers that Ben Carson had just dropped out of the race and releasing a video that misquoted Marco Rubio as saying the Bible held few answers to the world’s problems, have generated questions about Cruz’s character, a problem that has plagued his political career from the start and has alienated many evangelicals.
4) Evangelicals are rejecting the political establishment of the GOP. No sooner had Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 than evangelicals began to worry that the Republican Party had taken their votes for granted. “Were Christians Courted for Their Votes or Beliefs?” a Christianity Today headline asked after another Republican victory in 1988. That question has grown all the more pronounced through the presidency of George W. Bush and the seeming indifference by Congressional Republicans to the agenda of religious conservatives. In Cruz, many evangelicals see not so much a likeminded warrior, but yet another Washington politician who will pay lip service to their cherished issues on the campaign trail but who will ignore them and their causes once in office. In failing to rally behind Cruz, evangelical voters are rejecting the business-as-usual politics they feel has taken advantage of them. Which leads to the final reason why evangelical voters are turning away from Ted Cruz…
5) Two words: Donald Trump. Donald Trump has been the confounding mystery of 2016, but nothing remains more curious than how well he has done among evangelicals. Trump’s victory among evangelicals in South Carolina’s primary paved the way for his wins with the same voters in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, besting Cruz in some of those states by more than 15 percent among evangelicals. Evangelical leaders have mounted a vigorous campaign against Trump’s candidacy, but that has had little sway on the grassroots. While these religious leaders may question the “true” evangelical identity of Trump’s supporters, there’s no question such voters would have received little scrutiny had they lined up behind Cruz. But these voters have cast their lot with Trump. And in doing so, they have denied the presidential aspiration of one of their own.
Featured Image: “Senator Ted Cruz of Texas speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)” by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr