After Iowa and N.H., will faith-based voters coalesce?
No one really expected New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary to serve as a predictor of evangelical voting patterns, since only 9% of the state’s voters call themselves “evangelical.” But after strong support from the Christian right in Iowa, Texas Senator Ted Cruz’ dropped to third place in the Republican presidential race raising questions whether Cruz regain his footing among Christians.
According to a Washington Post article from the morning after the New Hampshire primary, Cruz, and perhaps other evangelical-friendly candidates, need not worry. While Gallup polling found New Hampshire to be the least religious state in the country, upcoming Super Tuesday states in the heavily evangelical South are predicted to tip the balance.
Before Illinois votes on March 15, the question of the “evangelical bloc” may have been decided. On Super Tuesday March 1, six of the 11 states holding primaries have large numbers of evangelical voters. Before that is the February 20 South Carolina primary, and more primaries take place March 5, 8, and 15 in heavily Christian or evangelical states including Kansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and North Carolina.
As these primaries approach, are evangelical voters pitching their lot with frontrunner Donald Trump, sticking with other frontrunners Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, or have they found a new candidate in Ohio governor John Kasich, who finished second in New Hampshire? Kasich has written about his faith in a book called Every Other Monday, describing his 20-year participation in a men’s Bible study group.
Florida senator Marco Rubio, who evangelicals helped to a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, stumbled in the New Hampshire primary and finished fifth behind former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
Faith isn’t the only apparent gap in this election cycle. Analysts point to an education gap in supporters of Trump and the other Republican candidates. Among people with only high school degrees, Trump leads Cruz 46 % to 13%; while among people with higher degrees, the gap closes to only 13 points.
In a poll of Protestant pastors conducted in January, LifeWay Christian Research found considerable disparity in the support for Trump. Only 5% of self-identified Republican pastors support the real estate mogul.
“One of the most surprising findings of our survey was the poor showing of Donald Trump (among pastors)”, said Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research. “When it comes to Mr. Trump, there seems to be a huge gap between the pulpit and the pew.”
As of the time of that survey, four-in-ten Republicans and three-in-ten Democrats were still undecided about which candidate they would support. LifeWay found that older pastors (those over 64) are more likely to be undecided (54%) than those 18 to 44 (44%). Older pastors were more likely to favor Trump (8% percent), while Cruz performed well with pastors 45 to 54 (21%).
Among U.S. pastors of all denominations, LifeWay found 54% identified as Republican while 46% were Democrats.
Democrats are not making much appeal on the basis of overt faith-based values. Religion News Services describes frontrunner Hillary Clinton as a “social-justice-focused Methodist,” and Senator Bernie Sanders as culturally Jewish and “unabashedly irreligious.” Clinton’s thumping by Sanders in New Hampshire is likely to be balanced by support from a more diverse electorate elsewhere, including Black Protestants in the South.
“Simply put, it’s a bizarre election season,” Stetzer said.
– IB Staff with additional reporting from Baptist Press and RNS