As Ted Cruz and Donald Trump fight for the top spot in the Iowa caucuses, Sen. Marco Rubio is looking to move into a solid third position above the fading Dr. Ben Carson, in part by appealing to evangelical Christian voters who historically make up 57 percent of Iowa GOP caucus goers.
The most recent poll that breaks down support among likely GOP caucus goers who self-identify as evangelicals, conducted by PPP between January 8 and 10, shows Ted Cruz in the lead among evangelicals with 28 percent, followed by Donald Trump with 24 percent, Marco Rubio with 12 percent, and Ben Carson with 10 percent.
The PPP poll had Trump in first place overall with 28 percent support, with Cruz in second at 26, followed by Rubio at 13 percent and Carson at 8 percent. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucus, is at 3 percent, and former Senator Rick Santorum, who won the 2012 Iowa caucus, is at 2 percent.
Two other recent polls place the Iowa race at a virtual tie between Trump and Cruz, though the recent exchange between the two over “New York Values” has the potential to change the minds of some Iowa voters between now and February 1, when the caucuses are held.
While Cruz and Carson do slightly better among evangelicals than with the general population of GOP caucus goers, Trump and Rubio do slightly worse.
The Rubio campaign, which needs a third place finish in front of Carson to be able to continue into New Hampshire with some claim of momentum, is promoting the idea that he is leading among one segment of evangelicals.
In a recent article that relied heavily on comments from Eric Teetsel, Rubio’s newly named director of faith outreach who recently moved to Iowa with his family, Yahoo News reporter Jon Ward asserted that young evangelicals favor Rubio over Cruz:
But if you want to know whether an evangelical Christian — in Iowa or beyond — is supporting Cruz or Rubio, ask them one simple question: Is America a Christian nation? Most Cruz supporters would answer yes unequivocally. But if they pause before answering, it probably doesn’t matter what they say after that. You’ve more than likely found a Rubio voter.
Here’s the rub: the kind of evangelical who pauses when asked the “Christian nation” question – the Rubio type – is most likely to be under 45 and less politically active than the Cruz evangelical.
“There is simply no public polling evidence to support the assertion that younger evangelicals support Rubio over Cruz,” Rachel Caufield, a professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa and director of the school’s Harkin Institute Iowa Caucus Project tells Breitbart News.
However, she adds, “It is entirely possible that the Rubio campaign has internal polling that shows it.”
Breitbart News contacted the Rubio campaign to see if they have internal polling to support the assertion that younger evangelicals support Rubio over Cruz, but the campaign has not responded.
PPP, which conducted the poll, obtained age group data of respondents, but did not respond to requests from Breitbart to provide an age group breakdown of support for the GOP candidates among likely Iowa GOP caucus goers.
Of the top four contenders, Cruz and Carson are authentically evangelical Christians for whom the language of evangelism flows smoothly.
Trump, a Presbyterian, is a mainline Protestant for whom the language of evangelical Christianity does not come naturally, but whose appeal to evangelicals on the big issue of preserving our country’s Christian heritage is strong. On Monday he spoke in Lynchburg, Virginia at Liberty University, the Christian school founded by the late Jerry Falwell.
Jerry Falwell, Jr., the current Liberty University President, told Fox News recently, “Trump reminds me so much of my father.”
In contrast to the other three top contenders, Rubio is a bit of a hybrid, both in his own faith and in his political positioning.
Born into a Roman Catholic family, he converted to the Church of Latter Day Saints as a child, converted back into Roman Catholicism while still a child, and today periodically attends an evangelical church in Florida while maintaining his membership in the Roman Catholic church.
He is to some degree vulnerable to the charge that he is trying to be “all things to all evangelicals.”
Recently, for instance, his campaign sent out an email that included a claim from Russell Moore, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, that “Marco Rubio is leading the Billy Graham wing of evangelicals, Ted Cruz is leading the Jerry Falwell wing, and Donald Trump is leading the Jimmy Swaggart wing.”
On the other hand, the Rubio campaign also launched a recent 30 second television ad in Iowa that is a pure statement of his own Christian evangelical faith, one which could just as easily been made by the late Jerry Falwell himself. It is, in essence, a theological, rather than political statement.
Then there’s the unsupported claim that younger evangelicals favor Rubio over all other candidates. Though made by a Yahoo News reporter and not by the campaign itself, it’s hard to see that unsubstantiated assertion as anything but a message the Rubio campaign wanted to get out.
Rubio has also put together a religious liberty advisory board that includes well-known pro-amnesty evangelical Dr. Sammy Rodriquez. Dr. Rick Warren, best-selling author of the Purpose-Driven Life, is also on the advisory board, though he also says participation on that board does not constitute an endorsement. Baylor’s Dr. Thomas Kidd, another evangelical who has written favorably of something that sounds a lot like amnesty, is also on the advisory board, though he also says that does not constitute an endorsement.
Rubio, who claims the Gang of Eight bill he co-sponsored in 2013 with Sen. Chuck Schumer was not amnesty, a claim disputed by many, also recently moved towards a pro-amnesty position when he declared on Meet the Press Sunday that illegal aliens who had not committed felony crimes could stay in the United States:
Let me ask you by the way quickly on the 11 million, are you still for finding a way for them to legally stay in the United States?
Yeah, look. If you’re a criminal alien, no, you can’t stay. If you’re someone that hasn’t been here for a very long time, you can’t stay.
Although almost all of the focus on evangelical voters in Iowa points to their significant influence in the GOP caucuses, a study of the 2008 caucus goers reported in Why Iowa?: How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process, a book written by David Redlawsk and several other academics, showed that 17 percent of Democrat caucus goers self-identified as evangelicals, compared to 48 percent of Republican caucus goers.
These findings that, even in Iowa, evangelicals play a role, though clearly far less significant, in the Democratic caucuses as well as the GOP caucuses are re-enforced by a nationwide exit poll conducted by Pew Research in 2012 that indicated 79 percent of self-identifying white evangelicals voted for Republican Mitt Romney, while only 20 percent voted for Democrat Barack Obama.
Since the population of Iowa is 91.4 percent white, and 2012 GOP caucus goers were 99% white, it is not surprising that evangelicals in Iowa show a preference to participate in the Republican caucuses, as opposed to the Democratic caucuses.
The Rubio campaign’s Teetsel, former executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, a project which his website describes as “[a] call of Christian conscience,” seems to be reaching out to pro-amnesty evangelicals.
“I have heard advocates for other candidates say, ‘America is in need of revival and my candidate is the one who can bring it. And I say, ‘No. That is not where revival comes from,’” Teetsel told Yahoo News in an obvious reference to the Cruz campaign.
“A Rubio voter wants cultural redemption too. Every Christian yearns for that. It is a promise of scripture,” he continued, then added a comment likely to appeal to pro-amnesty Democrat evangelicals even more than GOP evangelicals.
“We want to focus on liberalism in its truest sense, a place where every American is free to live out their beliefs and values in proximity with those who don’t necessarily share them and respect one another’s differences,” Teetsel said.
This could be seen as encouragement for pro-amnesty evangelicals who are registered as Democrats to cross over on caucus night and vote for Rubio in the GOP caucuses.
While it is unclear if there is any organized effort to accomplish such a crossover, sources familiar with the Iowa caucus process tell Breitbart News, “You have to be registered with the party to vote, but you can change your registration when you show up at the caucuses. So, it’s wide open.”
“You can register to vote or change your party affiliation the night of the caucuses,” according to the AFL-CIO’s 2015 How to Guide for Participants in the Iowa Caucus.
“People who are not registered with either the Democratic or Republican Parties are able to change their registration to one party or the other the night of the caucus,” as the Huffington Post confirms.
Not all evangelical leaders see the heightened level of political competition for evangelical voters as necessarily a good thing.
“Several GOP candidates share the gospel — the good news of Jesus’s life, death for our sins and resurrection — as the hope that inspires their lives and callings,” Kelly Monroe Kullbert, editor of Finding God at Harvard and founder of Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration, tells Breitbart News.
“The wise elders of those candidates, Gov. Mike Huckabee and Dr. Ben Carson, emphasize the necessity of unity that produces strength,” Kullberg says.
“If only the Rubio and Cruz campaigns could see this. Rather than nit-picking and competing, they should join forces in some real and powerful way. The futures of the Church and nation are more important than anyone’s career. America and a hurting world can no longer afford the luxury of our small differences. May these candidates put their heads and hearts together and act like the ‘evangelicals’ they claim to be,” Kullberg adds.
In a race where Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are competing for the top spot in the Iowa GOP caucuses, the Rubio campaign appears to be pulling out every stop to finish in third place ahead of Dr. Ben Carson. It remains to be seen how successful the Rubio campaign’s new faith outreach strategy will be in helping the junior senator from Florida accomplish that goal.