Polls show Donald Trump is leading among evangelicals in many states. That’s a great mystery of the 2016 race.
How can a man who’s been married three times, who says he attends a mainline Presbyterian congregation, who is painfully unfamiliar with basic elements of evangelical life, and until recently was on the wrong side of many issues important to social conservatives, hold a lead among self-identified evangelical Christians?
Except in Iowa, where Sen. Ted Cruz’s first place finish was powered largely by engaged evangelicals (exit polls show he won that group, which made up 64 percent of caucus goers, defeating Trump by a 34 percent to 22 percent margin, with Rubio close behind at 22 percent).
Exit polls in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, all show that Trump won a plurality of the self-identified evangelical vote over both Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio. National polls show a similar outcome.
Cruz has built has campaign on the solid base of evangelical support. His father, Rafael Cruz, is a well recognized evangelical pastor who criss-crossed Iowa for a year garnering support for his son. He has racked up an impressive array of evangelical endorsements—from Dr. James Dobson to Iowa pastor Bob Vander Plaats.
Yet Cruz has stumbled under allegations that his campaign tactics have been “dirty politics” not suitable for someone who claims to live by Biblical values.
Evangelical vote will play a key role in the SEC primary, where six southern states with high evangelical populations-Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and Oklahoma—are in play.
Two Breitbart focus groups of self-identified evangelicals conducted in Nashville, Tennessee on Thursday suggest that though Donald Trump may be leading nationally among self-identified evangelicals, many remain wary. Within the focus groups of 26, the majority backed Cruz, a significant minority supported Trump, two were undecided, one backed Carson, one backed Rubio, and no one backed Kasich.
The most important take away is that evangelicals who support Trump want “a bad boy who is on their side,” while those who support Cruz want a consistent supporter of Biblical values.
One listener to Ralph Bristol’s radio program on Nashville’s WWTN captured the bad boy appeal of Trump to evangelicals:
I’ve been a Christian conservative Republican woman for as long as I can remember – and I still am.
You seem to be genuinely curious about why someone who fits my description would have faith in Donald Trump. I hope this will help.
In a nutshell, he’s the only one with any testosterone.
If you insist I elaborate: Ted Cruz is a compass pointing true right, and good for him. Rubio is thoughtful, articulate, and mature, especially for his age, and good for him. But Donald Trump, for all his faults – and all ‘bad boys’ have lots of faults – is the Alpha dog in the pack, and the pack, of which I’m part, is desperate for an alpha dog.
We feel threatened more than ever (in our lifetimes) by enemies, foreign and domestic, political, cultural and existential.
In short, we’re ready for a ‘bad boy’ who’s on our side. (emphasis added)
In contrast, Max Lucado, well known evangelical author and pastor, as well as a signatory on the pro-amnesty Evangelical Immigration Table’s support for the Gang of Eight bill, expressed the anti-Trump sentiment of many evangelicals when he wrote earlier this week that the New York real estate magnate wasn’t “decent” enough to be president:
I don’t know Mr. Trump. But I’ve been chagrined at his antics. He ridiculed a war hero. He made mockery of a reporter’s menstrual cycle. He made fun of a disabled reporter. He referred to the former first lady, Barbara Bush as “mommy,” and belittled Jeb Bush for bringing her on the campaign trail. He routinely calls people “stupid,” “loser,” and “dummy.” These were not off-line, backstage, overheard, not-to-be-repeated comments. They were publicly and intentionally tweeted, recorded, and presented.
Such insensitivities wouldn’t even be acceptable even for a middle school student body election. But for the Oval Office? And to do so while brandishing a Bible and boasting of his Christian faith? I’m bewildered, both by his behavior and the public’s support of it.
The stock explanation for his success is this: he has tapped into the anger of the American people. As one man said, “We are voting with our middle finger.” Sounds more like a comment for a gang-fight than a presidential election. Anger-fueled reactions have caused trouble ever since Cain was angry at Abel.
“I bet you I can tell you how old she is,” Brandi a 34-year-old mother who supports Ben Carson though she acknowledges he doesn’t have “a snowball’s chance” of winning, who participated in the focus group said of the evangelical woman who supports Trump because he is “a bad boy on our side.”
“She is in her fifties. My dad is in his fifties, and he thinks Donald Trump is fantastic. My dad thinks Donald Trump hung the moon,” she said.
“I think it’s time for a bad boy, but it’s Cruz,” another woman said.
“My father is the most conservative Christian pastor you’re ever going to meet,” a man in his 40s who supports Cruz said. ” He’ll preach on anything he thinks is a sin regardless of the consequences. He told me the other day he would vote for Donald Trump. I said ‘Why are you voting for Donald Trump?’ He said, ‘Because he’s the only one telling the truth.’ I looked at him and I said ‘He is a product of watching the network news … and I’ve got to have a talk with him. There’s going to be some coming to Jesus,” he concluded.
“The flip side is, my daughter who is 24, who agrees with me about almost everything, she loves Trump because he says what he thinks,” Elizabeth, a Cruz supporter added.
“There’s no precedent for Donald Trump. He’s an anomaly. They don’t understand why he’s still in the race. This has been in the back of my head the whole time since he joined the race. Could he not be the biggest fraud since Obama has been put on this country?” a Cruz supporter asked.
“If he gets elected, I think he’s going to go in there and do whatever he wants, just like Obama did,” she added.
“I’m flabbergasted when I hear evangelicals say they want Trump,” a man in his forties said.
“To me, what created Trump, was Obama…The reason I believe evangelicals are jumping on the Trump wagon is because they want payback [for all of Obama’s constitutional usurpations].”
Within the focus groups, supporters of Trump and Cruz were dug in behind their candidate. Among the 24 who had already decided for whom they will vote, it wasn’t a recent commitment—all had made their mind up more than a month before.
“Look at what King David did. He had men killed. Donald Trump has done and said some things I’m not in favor of. All I know he is not being bribed by millions,” Jim, a business man in his forties and a Trump supporter, said.
“After David had Bathsheba’s husband killed, he at least asked God’s forgiveness. Donald Trump said he has never asked for God’s forgiveness. All I know is God-fearing, Bible believing people, we cannot think that’s ok,” a woman who backs Cruz responded.
“If Cruz or Rubio is being bribed, is that ok?” Jim responded, referring to the millions of dollars that have flowed into Super PACs supporting them.
“He’s interested in survival of the Donald. The last thing we need is a world view like that,” a Cruz supporter said.
“We have to get rid of the organization we’ve got in there. Republicans, Democrats, it’s all one tight big establishment,” John, a Trump supporter in his sixties, chimed in.
All participants—Cruz, Trump, and other supporters alike—agreed that strength was Trump’s appeal to evangelicals.
“We need to get out of this mess,” an undecided participant said, and “Trump’s a strong man who could do that,” one said.
“We need a strong man,” another agreed.
“You’ve got to get rid of this unified party [of Republicans and Democrats]. It’s destroying our country,” a Trump supporter said.
“People who think about morals and good every day think about the damage that’s been done, and the amount of effort we need to reverse it. There’s fault in thinking that Trump’s going to reverse it in our particular way but there’s no fault in thinking that he’s going to go in and tear up the shop. I’m not a Trump guy,” one Cruz supporter said.
“It’s a reflection of who he has hired to run his campaign. Is he the one doing it? Or is someone making poor decisions on his behalf? ” another Cruz supporter asked.
But even Cruz supporters were not letting him off the hook.
“But he still has responsibility for it. The whole thing, is Ted Cruz says he is Christian, and then there are certain dirty politics things going on in the background, and granted, it’s been going on since elections have been going on,” one Cruz supporter said.
“Where we are at with all of this primary stuff is our country has gone way over here [points to the far left]. Ted Cruz is here [far right], Rubio is here [center-right], Trump is here [center-right]. I don’t think as a nation, because the two party system isn’t working, we can’t go 180 degrees over here [to the far right]. I don’t think people can get their mind around Ted Cruz type conservativism right now. But Donald Trump is the antithesis to the way Obama got in, even though he has the same campaign style, he’s doing it free hand, where Obama was very scripted,” a Trump supporter added.
“If you look at the political structure, I don’t think that Ted Cruz, who is not a unifier in the Senate, because of his principles, he can’t make the deals that Trump could,” one Trump supporter noted.
“We don’t like the establishment and Cruz stood up against them,” Dana, a mom in her forties said.
“I think Ted Cruz has the best reliability, he’s stood for conservative causes… I don’t know what you can do to make someone more reliable than him in that regard,” she added.
Though all the Cruz supporters were staunchly committed to their candidate and declared they were not going to change their vote, the majority were clearly troubled by the tactics the campaign has deployed.
Allegations of cheating by false claims from some of staffers in Iowa that rival Ben Carson had dropped out, the use of “voter shaming mailings,” and the recent embarrassing retraction of a video that made false claims about Marco Rubio’s views of the Bible that caused Cruz to fire his director of communications, have left a mark on the campaign of the junior senator from Texas.
“Overall, Cruz doesn’t seem to be in control of his candidacy,” said Eric, an executive in his sixties who is undecided between Cruz and Rubio.
“I think Cruz is not electable. He is too preachy,” Russ, in his sixties, says. “He looks too much like a preacher. To win this election, he’s going to have to carry the moderate vote. I don’t think Cruz is coming across to the moderates.”
“Our little girl, she’s eleven. I’ve gotten her into politics. I’ve tried to show her the importance of being active politically in her role of being an American citizen,” Brandi, the 34-year-old mother who supports Carson said.
“Somehow, she’s bored stiff with it. But she listens to talk radio with me, that’s what we listen to on the way home. She heard the host say one day that Cruz reminded him of a creepy car salesman. She says ‘Why do I feel like every time this Cruz guy gets on TV he’s trying to sell me Jesus?’ And I thought, coming from the mouths of babes. Don’t try and win me over with your faith,” Brandi said of Cruz.
“I do think there’s a lot of hypocrisy with Cruz. I’m going to vote for him, I support him, but he needs to clean up his act,” Elizabeth, a Cruz supporter, added.
But all Cruz supporters stood by their man.
“It’s refreshing to have a candidate who aligns with my values,” Lynn, a realtor, says. “I know he’s not perfect. There are 200,000 volunteers working on his campaign. He can’t control the actions of all of them.”
Focus group participants were asked to explain why Trump leads among self-identified evangelicals in every primary but Iowa and in national polls.
“I don’t understand that,” Brandi, the 34-year-old mother who supports Ben Carson, said
“Even my 15 year old knew that was wrong,” a Cruz supporter said
“Part of it is words matter,” Jordan, in his thirties, said, when asked about why polls show Trump leading among evangelicals:
One, we have a very broad definition of what an evangelical is [in those polls]. Two, we have a lot of Christians who cannot be consistent in their world view and how they approach things. It’s one thing to say you are a Christian and hold Christian views and live that out in your personal life and your civic life. Then you see another thing in [evangelical] Christians who support someone who is completely antithetical to anything resembling Biblical values.
Despite dug-in divisions over which candidate to support, there was remarkable unanimity among focus group participants on several issues.
All agreed that integrity and principled stance on issues are the most important characteristics in a President. Political experience, in contrast, is seen as a negative.
“I think if our current president had just followed the Constitution, we would have been fine,” Tammy, a woman in her fifties, noted. Unfortunately, “He’s turned the Constitution into a doormat,” she added.
“For me personally, I see what experience does in politics, and I don’t think I like much about it,” a man in his forties who unsuccessfully ran for the Tennessee House of Representatives several years ago said.
All participants agreed that there is a generational divide among evangelicals. Those under the age of 35 or 40 are more likely to have different political views, more receptive to “social justice.”
This group, the focus group participants thought, may be voting more heavily for Trump and Rubio. The Rubio campaign, in fact, has suggested this, though no polling to date has supported it.
There was unanimity on several areas policy areas as well.
All agreed that Islam in incompatible with the continued existence of a constitutional Republic in the United States. When asked what percentage of the 3 million Muslims who currently reside in the country want to destroy the constitutional republic, answers ranged from 30 percent to 90 percent.
Christianity is under attack at home and abroad, the participants agreed. Christian leaders, with the exception of Franklin Graham, are doing little to fight back.
Many local pastors and churches—including those attended by focus group participants are doing a poor job of leadership, as well.
“The pastors in this community are all intelligent,” Debbie, a woman from Brentwood in her fifties said.
“They know that they can talk about politics from the pulpit. Why would we not talk about persecution of Christians? I have gone to my pastor at my church, I call it Six Flags Over Jesus, What they come up with is this new thing in theology, “centeristic.” You don’t want to be too far to the right or to the left, that you want to unify, you want to bring people together, so you don’t go too far over here… It’s making them luke warm,” she noted.
“What many churches are doing today is building congregations, they’re not building the kingdom of God,” Russ, a retired operator of a large non-profit charity says.
There is a parallel among rank and file evangelicals to the grassroots rebellion against the leadership of the Republican Party, several participants said, a sentiment which was unanimously supported.
“Evangelical leaders” are promoting political policies with which rank-and-file evangelicals vehemently disagree. Chief among these policies are support for amnesty for illegal aliens and the federal governments resettlement of Muslim refugees in the United States.
A number of evangelical leaders, through the Evangelical Immigration Table, have supported these policies.
One focus group participant summed up the unanimous sentiment of the other participants.
“I think the correct Biblical view is the one advanced by that other group, Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration, that say the ‘sojourner,’ the non-resident, should be treated kindly but not given the same privileges as resident citizens.”
“It doesn’t make common sense to invite a stranger into your house and have them kill your family,” he added.
“I’m all for helping refugees with Christian charity,” he concluded, “ but help them over there where they live in the Middle East, not here.”
Half of the participants in the focus groups were female, half were male. All were white. Though we did not specifically ask for ages, it appeared that 2 were in their thirties, 8 were in their forties, 10 were in their fifties, and 6 were in their sixties. All were residents of Middle Tennessee and will be voting or have already voted in the March 1 Tennessee GOP Presidential preference primary.
The participants were all volunteers. Two-thirds were regular listeners to WWTN radio, the conservative talk radio station in Nashville. The remainder came through Facebook postings and emails sent out to Tea Party, liberty groups in the middle Tennessee area. We asked several local evangelical churches to include notices to their members of the opportunity to participate in the focus groups in their regular weekly email newsletters to members. All declined.