Charleston, S.C. — 72 percent.
That’s the number of Republican voters in South Carolina’s primary that identified as evangelical or born-again Christians, according to exit polling. That’s an eye-popping, record-shattering figure: It was 65 percent in South Carolina’s 2012 GOP primary, and 60 percent in 2008.
With three-quarters of the electorate identifying as evangelical, it was shaping up as a great night for Ted Cruz, who launched his campaign at Liberty University and has boasted of building a “firewall” to dominate the March 1 southern states because of their ultra-conservative, religious composition. South Carolina represented the first test of that theory.
Cruz failed. Among South Carolina’s evangelical Republican voters, Trump won 33 percent, Cruz won 27 percent, and Rubio won 22 percent. And while Cruz did carry the 38 percent of “very conservative” voters in the state, it wasn’t enough to finish anywhere close to Trump. Nor was it enough to beat Rubio, whom he finished roughly 1,000 votes behind.
This spells trouble for Cruz on Super Tuesday. He remains better-organized than any other candidate across the South (which should make a difference, considering that both Trump and Rubio benefited from having impressive field operations in South Carolina). But there’s no question that Cruz’s inability to carry the evangelical vote here portends poorly for him in states of similar ideological and demographic makeup.
That’s a big problem for Cruz on March 1. But he faces even bigger challenges beyond then.
Both Trump and Rubio performed evenly with non-evangelicals in South Carolina: Trump took 30 percent, and Rubio took 22 percent. But Cruz saw a significant drop-off, winning just 13 percent of that group. This echoes Cruz’s performance in Iowa (33 percent with evangelicals, 19 percent with non-evangelicals) and New Hampshire (24 percent with evangelicals, 8 percent with non-evangelicals).
Overall, the result for Cruz was discouraging. In a conservative, evangelical-dominated southern state — much like those his campaign has promised to win on Super Tuesday — he finished third behind Trump and Rubio. (The tally with 99 percent of precincts reporting: Trump 32.5 percent, Rubio 22.5 percent, Cruz 22.3 percent.)
Cruz has labored to avoid being narrowly cast, à la Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008, as a Christian candidate with limited appeal to the rest of the party. But while he is undeniably better-funded and better-organized than those candidates, Cruz’s numbers thus far have been eerily similar.
In Iowa, Santorum’s split among evangelicals and non-evangelicals was 32–14. Huckabee won 46 percent of evangelicals but tanked among non-evangelicals (entrance polls didn’t provide an exact number).
In New Hampshire, Santorum’s split was 23–6. Huckabee won 28 percent of evangelicals, but again flopped with non-evangelicals, taking just 11 percent of the vote among them statewide.
In South Carolina, Santorum’s split was 21–10. Huckabee’s was 43–14.
Both Huckabee and Santorum were successful in the South, winning a number of states in the Bible Belt to keep their campaigns alive in 2008 and 2012, respectively. But neither had broad enough appeal to compete when the race moved to bigger, less religious states.
Cruz seems to have inherited that same problem. But first he must grapple with the reality that he doesn’t have southern evangelicals locked down the way Huckabee and Santorum did.