Politics & Policy

Cruz Has Evangelicals Locked Up, and Rubio Is Betting Everything That It Won’t Matter

Rubio campaign in Marshalltown, Iowa, January 6, 2016. (Scott Olson/Getty)

Marco Rubio is widely considered one of the most talented communicators in the Republican party, but he hasn’t won the hearts of the Evangelical voters who dominate the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary. Ironically, many say it’s in part his relative restraint when it comes to talking about matters of faith — a contrast with the loud, proud declarations more typical of the country’s Evangelical denominations — that has prevented him from making greater inroads with one of the party’s most important constituencies.

That, of course, is a stark contrast with Rubio’s biggest rival, Ted Cruz, the son of a Baptist preacher who has courted Evangelicals with a preacher’s fervor and a lawyer’s attention to detail.

“Rubio does not speak their language as well, and he’s just a more reserved guy,” says a top Washington, D.C.–based Republican strategist who identifies as Evangelical. “Cruz knows how to talk about his own personal relationship with Jesus Christ and how it changed his life. He knows that when he’s visiting a phone bank and there are 12 or 15 people there, to stop and do a prayer circle. That’s the kind of thing that Marco Rubio and most other guys won’t do.”

“I think [Rubio] is making an effort to connect with Evangelicals now, but Cruz has a big head start on him at least here in South Carolina and, from my reading of things, all over the country,” says Pastor Al Phillips, a Rubio supporter and the director of missions for the Greenville Baptist Association. Phillips is also concerned with the general sense that Rubio is simply not the sort of “good ol’ boy backslapper” that many Evangelicals are used to, whereas Cruz “knows how to communicate with those guys in a way that feels like he’s one of them. And he is.”

It appears to be yet another area where Cruz has eaten Rubio’s lunch with shrewdness and hard work. But look a little deeper and two different strategies are at work: Rubio is betting that the fundamental rules of American politics haven’t changed and that the most broadly appealing candidate will triumph in the end, while Cruz is staking his chances on the conviction that 2016 is the year the Republican party’s right flank will triumph over its moderate faction.

Cruz’s campaign has been constructed from the outset to appeal to the GOP’s Evangelical voters. He launched his campaign at Liberty University, the academic mecca founded by Jerry Falwell; he has deployed his father, a Baptist preacher, on the campaign trail; he’s organized twin efforts, complete with their own websites, to enlist a pastor in every one of Iowa’s 99 counties and South Carolina’s 46 counties to get the senator’s supporters out to caucus and vote; his campaign hosts a weekly Bible-study group inside its Houston headquarters, and a weekly conference call for faith leaders — pastors, rabbis, and ministers — to keep them up to date on the latest developments; and he has racked up the endorsements of key Evangelical leaders across the country, from The Family Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats to Focus on the Family’s James Dobson to radio talk-show host Steve Deace.

“At this point, one would probably have to say that Cruz has out-Huckabee’d Huckabee,” says David Lane, the Evangelical political activist and organizer of the “Pastors and Pews” event series, which connects political candidates with pastors across the country and encourages religious leaders to seek political office.

According to Lane, Rubio’s problem is more commitment than style. Whereas Cruz attended approximately ten of his “Pastors and Pews” events in 2014 and 15 of them in 2015 — his father, Rafael Cruz, has also shown up in the past — Rubio, he says, attended his first last month in Iowa. And when he finally made it out, he was a huge hit.

“If I tell you that Marco Rubio knocked the ball out of the park, that doesn’t capture it,” Lane says. “It’s just dumb what his political guys have done, from my perspective, because Marco does really, really well with Evangelicals.”

‘It’s just dumb what his political guys have done, from my perspective, because Marco does really, really well with Evangelicals,’ says David Lane.

At the Iowa event organized by Lane, Rubio was pressed on his relationship with the New York hedge-fund billionaire and Republican mega-donor Paul Singer, who is a supporter of gay marriage and has endorsed Rubio. “I asked him this, ‘What is it that Paul Singer saw in you that he didn’t see in any other candidate?’” says Pastor Michael Demastus of Iowa’s Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, who is backing Cruz. “Because a guy like him has done everything he can to see that same-sex marriage becomes law. Of course Rubio’s response was, ‘He’s buying into my agenda, I’m not buying into his,’ but of course an endorsement like that gives me pause.”

Rubio’s campaign does not hinge on winning Evangelicals in Iowa, South Carolina, or elsewhere; if the Cruz camp has focused laser-like on those voters, Rubio’s team believes that its strategy — giving roughly equal attention to all segments of the GOP and, according to Rubio’s director of faith outreach, Eric Teetsel, “making the same case to every voter” — is more durable and that in the long run, even the party’s most religious voters simply want to know that their nominee is a God-fearing man who sees the presidency as a higher calling. “Christian voters in particular are glad to know that Senator Rubio’s leadership on these issues stems from a biblical worldview and that he relies on prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” says Teetsel.

Recently, the calculation Rubio is making has been a winning one: Candidates with strong support among Evangelicals have flamed out in the last two cycles, winning some early states but failing to capture the nomination.

In 2012, Rick Santorum won a plurality of Evangelical voters in Iowa — 32 percent — on his way to a victory in the caucuses. Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, finished behind him with 14 percent but won a plurality of non-Evangelical voters in the state. In South Carolina, Newt Gingrich doubled Romney’s share of the Evangelical vote, but Romney won non-Evangelicals. In 2008, Mike Huckabee took 46 percent of the Evangelical vote in Iowa, while Romney and John McCain finished in a virtual tie for second, with 19 and 18 percent, respectively. McCain went on to finish second behind Huckabee among Evangelicals in South Carolina and to trounce him among non-Evangelicals with 43 percent of the vote.

Cruz, of course, is betting that this year is different, and that uniting Evangelicals across the country behind his candidacy won’t preclude him from consolidating the support of other voting demographics. He has said repeatedly that millions of Evangelicals stayed home in 2012 and that his candidacy will bring them to the polls. “In this last election, 54 million Evangelical Christians stayed home,” he said in a radio interview in August. “Is it any wonder that we have the government we have, we have the leaders we have, if believers stay home and leave electing our leaders to unbelievers?”

According to Michael Barone of the American Enterprise Institute, that number almost certainly includes children and non-citizens. “I think his claim is exaggerated, but has some basis,” Barone says. The trouble is nobody seems to know by exactly how much. Barone says that while he doesn’t think Republicans maximized their turnout in 2012, “I think to say 54 million when you’ve got an electorate of 129 million is fantasy land.”

Recently, the calculation Rubio is making has been a winning one: Candidates with strong support among Evangelicals have flamed out in the last two cycles.

Regardless of the precise magnitude of the 2012 enthusiasm gap, several Evangelical leaders say they are actively trying to maximize their own share of the voting population through efforts to register the members of their congregations to vote. Brad Atkins of the South Carolina Pastors Alliance, who remains neutral in the 2016 race, says he continues to have his church office open on Sundays in order to make the copies of driver’s licenses that must accompany voter-registration forms in the state. He also provides the stamps. “I tell ’em, ‘This is the best 49 cents I’ll ever spend if you go vote biblical values,” he says.

Cruz has worked hard to position himself as the most likely beneficiary of such mobilization efforts.

Of course, all that legwork wouldn’t be nearly as valuable if Cruz himself didn’t have such innate appeal to Evangelicals. Listen to him on the campaign trail and he could easily be mistaken for a Baptist preacher. There is talk of hope and crisis, awakening and revival. He may strike most observers as shrewd and calculating, but many Evangelicals consider the Cuban-American preacher’s son to be genuine, and his support among them has surged as a result.

“Because Cruz is so open about his faith and about his strong core conviction about the Constitution, I think that resonates with people because they don’t see him as someone who is appealing to the crowd,” says Atkins.

That appeal is the linchpin of the Cruz campaign’s strategy: marry the passion and loyalty inspired by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2012 and 2008, respectively, with the organization and electability that those men lacked. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2012 entry polls, 57 percent of Iowa caucus-goers and two-thirds of South Carolina primary voters identified themselves as born-again or Evangelical. Cruz’s success in courting that sizeable demographic has already allowed him to leave 2016 competitors such as Huckabee, Santorum, and the neurosurgeon Ben Carson in the dust.

There are signs that the Rubio campaign is making a last-minute attempt to pay the party’s faith-based voters special attention. Last week, Rubio announced the formation of a religious-liberty advisory commission that includes prominent pastors and theologians who have the senator’s ear, but are not endorsing him. His campaign also went up with a television ad in which he expressly discusses his Christian faith.

Still, these sorts of overtures have the feel of a desperate effort to make up for months of comparative inactivity. They’re the kind of moves the Cruz team has been making since the beginning, with such success that there may not be enough real estate or time left for anyone else to eat into its commanding lead among Evangelicals.

The Rubio campaign, meanwhile, remains confident that it can win even if Cruz’s dominance of Evangelicals holds.

“Senator Rubio is working to win the support of every American and every religious tradition, including Christianity,” says Teetsel.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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