Trump cruised to victory in South Carolina, and the margin suggests that his base is broader than many people anticipated. Exit polls revealed that 70 percent of South Carolina’s GOP electorate identified as “Evangelical,” and that Trump split those voters evenly with Ted Cruz. The conventional wisdom is that this Evangelical split is bad news for Ted Cruz: He should be depending on these voters, the thinking goes, not sharing them with a thrice-married political newcomer. But there’s at least some indication that Trump’s Evangelicals are very different from Cruz’s.
First, let’s start with a procedural point. Exit-polling firms measure religious affiliation by self-identification — by asking a person leaving the polls whether he identifies as Evangelical or something else. This obviously doesn’t capture the full measure of religious identity. One can imagine, for instance, a woman who tells a pollster that she’s a devout Christian, even though she hasn’t attended church in years. For someone like this, faith is an important part of personal identity, but it’s unlikely to seriously affect behavior at the ballot box. Notably, most American Christians fall into this category: While approximately 80 percent of the country identifies as Christian, only about one in five regularly attend church services.
The American South is especially peculiar on this front. When Gallup ranked every U.S. state by its religiosity, states in the South took nine of the top ten spots, with South Carolina at fifth. These results were based on self-reported identification, meaning that a person’s faith was measured by what they told a stranger on the phone. Actual church-attendance rates tell a different story. Thanks to data compiled by the Association of Religious Data Archives, we have a very good sense of how many people in a given locale regularly attend church. By this attendance metric, the geographic heart of American religiosity isn’t the Southeast, but the middle part of the country — from Texas and Oklahoma through Iowa and the Dakotas. When it comes to church participation, many parts of the South fare no better than liberal enclaves in in the Northeast.
This raises serious doubts about Cruz’s campaign strategy. As many have reported, Cruz hopes to ride a wave of religious voters to victory in the March 1 “SEC primary,” when many states in the South hold elections. Yet many of the March 1 states (especially Georgia and Virginia) teem with the sort of less-observant Christians who turn out for Trump. Ironically, many of the states with the highest rates of church attendance, such as Nebraska and Kansas, fall outside of the Southeast and won’t hold their primaries on March 1.The news isn’t all bad for Cruz. Oklahoman Christians attend church frequently, as do those in Alabama and Arkansas; each of these states will hold their primaries on March 1. It’s possible that just as Cruz performs well among churchgoers in Evangelical circles, he’ll do well with Catholics and Mainline Protestants in the upper Midwest or with Mormons in Nevada and Utah. In other words, Cruz may find bases of support not only in Evangelical circles but also among people of all stripes who tether their religious lives to traditional institutions.
Still, it’s hard not to look at the South Carolina data and wonder whether Cruz has hung his hat on the wrong group of voters. The problem isn’t that Trump and Cruz are fighting over the same group of people. The problem is that Cruz may depend on a group of religious voters who increasingly spurn church services and, consequently, traditional social conservatives like him.
— J. D. Vance is a writer and biotech executive. His book, Hillbilly Elegy comes out June 28. You can follow him on twitter @JDVance1.