Four recent polls of the South Carolina GOP primary show that Donald Trump leads Ted Cruz among the 65 percent of likely GOP primary voters who self-describe as evangelical Christians.
CNN, Public Policy Polling (PPP), Emerson College, and Opinion Savvy polls all show that Trump’s double-digit lead among the general population is accompanied by a similar lead among evangelicals.
According to the CNN poll, conducted between February 10 and February 15, Trump leads Cruz in the general population by 16 points, 38 percent to 22 percent. That lead is even larger among evangelicals:
Trump holds an even broader lead among white evangelical voters in the state, who typically make up a majority of Republican primary voters. He tops Cruz by nearly 20 points among this group: 42% Trump, 23% Cruz, 14% Rubio, 9% Bush, 5% Carson and 1% Kasich.
The Emerson College poll, conducted between February 15 and February 16, shows Trump with an overall 13 point lead over Cruz, 33 percent to 20 percent, and with an equally strong 12 point lead over Cruz, 39 percent to 27 percent, among evangelicals.
The PPP poll, conducted between Feb 14 and Feb 15, shows Trump leading Cruz and Rubio, who are tied for second, overall by 17 points, 35 percent to 18 percent, but also leading Cruz among the evangelicals who comprised 62 percent of its sample, by 13 points, 35 percent to 22 percent.
An earlier poll by Opinion Savvy and the Augusta Chronicle, conducted between February 10 and February 11, showed similar results. Trump leads Cruz overall by 16 points, 36 percent to 20 percent, and among evangelicals by 9 points, 32 percent to 23 percent.
The results are remarkably different from the Iowa GOP caucuses, where evangelical voters favored Cruz over Trump by a 12 point margin, 34 to 22, according to entrance polls reported by the Washington Post. It was the record 64 percent turnout of evangelicals that powered Cruz’s 27 percent to 23 percent victory over Trump on February 1 in the Iowa GOP caucuses.
The Des Moines Register poll, released two days before the caucuses, gave Trump a 5 point, 28 percent to 23 percent lead over Cruz in Iowa, but that poll dramatically under-sampled evangelicals, which it showed supported Cruz over Trump by a 14 point margin, 33 percent to 19 percent.
That poll, however, did add this caveat:
If evangelicals turn out with the same force as in 2012, the race will be closer.
This poll shows 47 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers identify themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians. Entrance polling four years ago measured 57 percent.
When Selzer rejiggered the new Iowa Poll results to reflect a hypothetical 60 percent evangelical turnout, the race tightens: Trump gets 26 percent of their support, and Cruz gets 25 percent.
Had the Des Moines Register poll included a sample size of 64% evangelicals —the actual turnout — the poll results would likely have shown a tie or slight edge for Cruz, since the 14 point advantage it ascribed to Cruz among evangelicals nearly mirrored the 12 point advantage entrance polls showed he had on caucus night.
Nationally, however, Trump has consistently led Cruz among evangelicals.
In New Hampshire, where only 23 percent of those who vote in GOP Primaries self-identify as evangelicals, Trump soundly beat the field by 19 points, winning 35 percent to second place John Kasich’s 16 percent. But among New Hampshire evangelicals, Trump beat Cruz by 4 points, 27 percent to 23 percent.
What, then, can explain the difference in the levels of Cruz’s support among evangelicals in Iowa and South Carolina?
USA Today offers its own take on the rise of Trump among South Carolina’s evangelicals, reporting that there is “a fissure that’s opened wide among South Carolina evangelicals in the lead-up to the GOP presidential preference primary on Feb. 20,” as quoted here:
The cracks began to open in 2012 when a twice-divorced Newt Gingrich won South Carolina, but it’s been ripped wide open by a twice-divorced Trump.
As candidates court the roughly 65% of GOP voters in the state who count themselves as evangelicals, many of those voters are looking beyond faith to choose their candidate.
Instead, evangelicals are split into two camps and the divide has grown in the 20 years that Michael Lindsay, a sociologist who wrote the Pulitzer-nominated book Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, has studied evangelicalism in politics.
Trump, and to a lesser extent Cruz, have tapped into the “populist evangelicals,” those working-class folks who listen to conservative talk radio, are drawn to mass rallies and hold the idea that motivating great masses of people is the way to achieve political influence, Lindsay said.
In this election, the populist, anti-establishment sentiment has dominated so far, and Trump, the unlikely evangelical candidate, has benefited, he said.
Hogan Gidley, former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party and until recently director of communications for Mike Huckabee’s failed 2016 presidential campaign, has a theory.
“First, in Iowa you get to work at it for a year. Second, there are plenty of big name evangelicals in Iowa for sale. Flash a little money around and you can get them in a heartbeat, and their networks are massive,” Gidley tells Breitbart News from his home in Columbia, South Carolina.
“Cruz was able to cover a lot of his warts in Iowa, but a lot of those things are coming out. Evangelicals in South Carolina don’t like what they’re hearing and what they’ve seen from him,” he says.
“For example, Ted Cruz’s slogan is ‘I’m as good as Reagan but a little better than Jesus.’ If you’re going to make those claims, you better deliver,” Gidley adds.
“Ted Cruz doesn’t tithe. He will lie and cheat and steal votes from Ben Carson. The simplest of evangelical tasks is to ask for forgiveness when you’ve done wrong, but on the CBS debate stage the other night, he blamed CNN and didn’t ask for forgiveness,” he continues.
“South Carolinians realize the presidency is a secular office. You don’t have to be from us to get our votes, you just can’t lie to us and expect to get our votes,” he notes
“If you’re going to parade yourself around as paragon of Chrisian virtue, you’re going to have to be pretty airtight when it comes to your own Christian behavior,” Gidley says.
Breitbart News pointed out that as a former staffer on Governor Mike Huckabee’s campaign, Gidley is likely to be biased against Cruz, particularly in light of the fact that the Texas senator supplanted Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses on the strength of their support, among Iowa evangelicals.
“Huckabee doesn’t like any phony, and neither do I,” Gidley responded.
Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation and a campaign surrogate for Ted Cruz, has a markedly different interpretation.
“To paraphrase Benjamin Disraeli, there are lies, damn lies and political polls. There are polls that are all over the place, including the polls in Iowa that said Trump was going to win a huge victory in Iowa,” Phillips tells Breitbart News.
“I have not seen the polling, but I am on the ground in South Carolina. I fail to see how Donald Trump resonates with Evangelical voters on a large scale. Evangelical voters are not monolithic, but they are generally value voters. I don’t see how Trump relates to them with his prior support for every form of abortion and his massive giving to pro-abortion Democrats,” he says.
“Ted Cruz is an evangelical. He speaks the language and walks the walk. Ted Cruz’s dad is a Baptist preacher who has been on the ground in South Carolina.” Phillips adds:
I really can’t see how evangelical voters support Donald Trump. Trump is the guy that MSNBC called ‘The most LGBT friendly Republican in 2016.’ Most evangelicals believe marriage is between one man and one woman and want the GOP to do something about the Obergefell decision (the Supreme Court decision on homosexual marriage). Donald Trump came out and said, don’t do anything. It is now the law of the land.
“In Iowa, evangelical voters overwhelmingly supported Ted Cruz. Demographically, South Carolina is much closer to Iowa than it is to New Hampshire. I would expect Cruz to do exceptionally well with evangelical voters,” Phillips concludes.
Despite Trump’s double-digit lead in the most recent polls, most experts expect the race in South Carolina to tighten between now and primary election day on Saturday.