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Why Ted Cruz is losing evangelicals to Donald Trump

Why is a devout Christian and staunch defender of religious liberty losing evangelicals to a twice-divorced, formerly “very pro-choice” New York billionaire?
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a caucus night rally, Feb. 23, 2016, in Las Vegas. (Photo by John Locher/AP)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a caucus night rally, Feb. 23, 2016, in Las Vegas.

When Texas Sen. Ted Cruz became the first major candidate to announce his bid for the White House nearly a year ago, he chose to do so in a rousing, sermon-like address at the world’s largest Christian university -- Liberty -- where he lamented the fact that roughly half of America’s evangelicals weren’t voting anymore. “Imagine instead,” he told the audience, “millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”

He probably didn’t have “New York values” in mind.

Donald Trump won the Nevada caucuses late Tuesday night, scoring 45.9 percent of the vote with 100 percent of the Silver State’s precincts reporting. The result was significant for several reasons: Not only was it Trump’s third straight primary victory after defeating his rivals in New Hampshire and South Carolina, but it was also his biggest victory to date.

Most problematic about the caucuses for Team Cruz, however, was that Trump had once again won the evangelical vote, this time claiming 40 percent and dealing yet another blow to the vision Cruz laid out at Liberty University last March. If Cruz can’t turn things around by Super Tuesday next week, when six evangelical-heavy Southern states will vote, his vision of accepting the Republican nomination in Cleveland and later delivering a victory speech come November may well fade entirely.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Cruz supporters must be telling themselves. How could their guy -- a devout Christian, staunch defender of religious liberty, crusader against abortion, son of a pastor who regularly invokes God on the campaign trail -- be losing evangelical voters to a twice-divorced, formerly “very pro-choice” New York billionaire who curses and says things like “Two Corinthians”? What exactly do evangelicals see in this biblically illiterate blowhard?

Answering that question, many political analysts and religion experts will tell you, involves first knowing who these “evangelicals” are.

“The term ‘evangelical’ does not mean what it used to mean,” Nicole Russell, senior contributor to The Federalist, told MSNBC. “People think that evangelicals are strict conservative, Bible-thumping, Dr. James Dobson-type of people. But that’s an outdated definition of what an evangelical is. Now, the term has become so broad and so vague that it really applies to anyone who says they’re ‘very Christian,’ which a lot of people consider themselves.”

If the term “evangelical” covers a broader, more diverse group of voters than it used to, then campaigning for “evangelical” support becomes more complicated. Cruz’s big mistake, Russell explained, was in playing by an old rule book, hoping that endorsements from high-profile evangelical leaders -- like Dobson, founder of the Christian conservative group Focus on the Family, who formally threw his weight behind Cruz in December -- would sway the entire evangelical voting bloc. In doing so, Russell said, Cruz neglected the younger, “hipster-type” evangelical now lining up behind Trump.

“Cruz, when he went after that old guard segment of evangelicals, overestimated their influence and power,” she said.

Dr. Anthony Bradley, associate professor of religious studies at The King’s College in New York City, also spoke to a fractured state of evangelism that Trump has been able to play to his advantage. Many of today’s evangelicals see in Trump the same positives that non-evangelicals do: He’s blunt, anti-politically correct and always real.

“Donald Trump is actually speaking to a demographic within evangelism that both Ted Cruz and [Florida Sen.] Marco Rubio are unable to connect to,” Bradley said. “These are evangelicals who don’t read a lot of books, they’re not too interested in evangelism having a big impact on America. They’re most likely working class, very middle class, they drink Bud Light. So Trump is communicating to them in a very ‘Bud Light’ sort of way, and they get him.”

Even Trump’s past -- which is neither very conservative nor particularly Christian -- manages to be a draw for many evangelicals, who value redemption. Trump once described himself as “very pro-choice” on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” for example, but now says he doesn’t want to fund Planned Parenthood “if it's doing the abortion.”

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“Evangelicals like that idea that we’re all sinners,” said Hogan Gidley, who worked as a senior adviser to former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. “So we can appreciate someone who recognizes and doesn’t run from their past.”

To be clear: Despite the fact that evangelicals may appreciate or respect Trump’s evolution on certain issues, likely no evangelical believes that Trump is one of them. But that’s OK, Gidley explained. What evangelicals like about Trump is that he speaks for them.

That’s a big distinction from someone like Cruz, who’s spent months reciting Scripture and leading voters in prayer on the campaign trail, and who’s banded together pastors and hosted whole rallies devoted to religious liberty. Asked how important it is for the president to “fear God” -- which is in no way a constitutional requirement for the office -- Cruz said last November that “any president who doesn't begin every day on his knees isn't fit to be commander in chief.”

Cruz’s pitch to evangelical voters has always been: “I am one of you.” But that may be the problem.

“If you’re going to parade around as the paragon of Christian virtue, then you’re going to have to be fairly airtight on some basic Christian principles,” Gidley said, pointing to the fact that Cruz contributed less than 1 percent of his income to charity between 2006 and 2010. (Most evangelical leaders believe the Bible demands 10 percent.) Since his victory in Iowa, Cruz has also found himself apologizing for what many of his rivals describe as “dirty tricks” -- a particularly damning accusation when you’re running as a good Christian.

Trump isn’t exactly running a cleaner or more moral campaign than Cruz. Indeed, some of the most vicious attacks of this or any election cycle have come from the real estate mogul’s Twitter account. But again, he’s not the one trying to identify with evangelicals.

“Donald Trump is not saying, ‘I’m an evangelical.’ He doesn’t tithe,” joked Gidley. “But he’s also not going around saying, ‘I’m as good as Ronald Reagan, but I’m a little bit better than Jesus Christ.’ And that’s basically Ted Cruz’s campaign slogan.”