A Republican candidate cannot win without enthusiastic support from the bloc of evangelical voters. John McCain and Mitt Romney found this out the hard way in 2008 and 2012. Millions of uninspired evangelicals sat out both elections, and the electoral consequences were both predictable and ominous.
The Values Voter Summit was held this weekend in Washington, D.C. This is the premier annual gathering of evangelical and social conservatives, and this year’s conclave was perhaps the most important in its 10-year history, given the significance of next year’s presidential election.
The VVS crowd consists of engaged and informed conservatives, whose view of public policy is, like the Founders, shaped by Scripture. This is a knowledgeable and discerning group. When they speak, they speak for tens of millions of evangelical voters all across America.
The results of this weekend’s straw poll were decisive. Evangelicals now have a clear favorite, Ted Cruz, who won going away with 35% of the vote. Ben Carson was a distant second at 18%, Mike Huckabee was third at 14% and Marco Rubio was fourth at 13%. Donald Trump finished fifth with a lowly five percent.
Together, the top four vote getters represent 80% of all the votes cast at the summit. The chances are very good that if any one of them drops out, his support will shift to one of the other three candidates. As the demolition derby that is a primary campaign continues, eventually their support is highly likely to coalesce around the last man from this list who is still standing at the end.
This, by the way, should bring an end to the myth of evangelical support for Trump. Although early polls indicated high levels of support for him among evangelicals, I placed little confidence in them and suspected that support for him would melt like a stick of butter in a hot sun as voter awareness of his positions increased.
Early evangelical support for Trump was rooted in the same soil his general support was: evangelicals, just like most ordinary Americans, want a political leader who will tell it like it is and who will take it to the folks who have been taking it to us for years, and do it without backing down an inch. It was rooted more in his personality and pugnacious style than in substance.
But Trump polled at five percent at VVS for a reason: evangelicals suspect that he is a CHINO – a Christian In Name Only, a nominal Christian at best.
This lack of evangelical support for Trump was echoed in a survey done by World Magazine. World contacted 103 evangelical leaders, 91 of whom responded to their queries. Only 1.1% of them support a Trump candidacy.
At VVS, Trump brought with him a big Bible, which only served to remind attendees of Bill Clinton ostentatiously brandishing his oversized Bible on his way out of church. It seemed like shameless pandering in which Trump was using the Bible as a prop and not as the Word of God.
None of the other candidates brought a Bible to the podium. Why? Because they didn’t need to.
What evangelicals want to know is not whether Trump has a Bible, but whether he’s read it. And the early returns have not been encouraging. He whiffed at his first opportunity to name his favorite Bible verse. Then he took a second swing and said he did in fact have a favorite Bible verse, “Never bend to envy,” which, as noble as its sentiments are, isn’t found anywhere in the Bible.
Further, Trump, if he’s read the Bible at all, apparently has not made it as far as Jeremiah 9:23-24, which reads, “(L)et not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him boast in this, that he understands and knows me.”
As an aside, if Trump didn’t seal his fate with conservatives at VVS, he certainly did last night on “60 Minutes,” when he declared that his health care plan was even more socialist than Barack Obama’s. “I am going to take care of everybody,” he said, and “the government’s going to pay for it.” Yikes.
As far as Cruz is concerned, this is the third year running he’s won the VVS straw poll, and his margin of victory this year was larger than in his previous two wins. He won because nobody doubts the sincerity of his evangelical faith, his commitment to constitutional principle, and his willingness to fight the entrenched power structure in Washington.
I suspect that VVS attendees, while they love and admire Carson’s faith and fortitude, are still a little uncertain about the depth of his understanding of the issues. Rubio was articulate and his rhetoric soared as always, but his speech lacked specifics while Cruz rang the changes on all the substantive, tangible things he would do on day one of his presidency. In addition, Rubio likely has what will prove to be lethal weaknesses on immigration.
Gov. Huckabee has been stalwart on social issues, and has taken the strongest stand against runaway judicial supremacy of anyone in the field. I suspect he didn’t do better in the VVS poll because attendees still have questions about his perceived big government tendencies and his early (and since repudiated) support for Common Core.
Regardless of specifics, at least the eight candidates who came to VVS cared enough about the evangelical vote to show up and make their case. Jeb Bush did not show, which will prove fatal for his chances. Carly Fiorina did not show, which likewise was a major error in judgment. Evangelicals are taking a second look at her because of her unapologetic stand on behalf of the sanctity of life and for the complete defunding of Planned Parenthood. She missed an enormous opportunity here.
Given the manifest challenges facing the Democrats in picking a candidate, conservatives are in the best position since 1980 to insist that a genuine social conservative carry the torch for the GOP in 2016. If the GOP nominee comes from the top four at the Values Voter Summit, the GOP will win. If he doesn’t, it will be a disastrous repeat of 2008 and 2012.
Bottom line: the VVS has brought striking clarity to the race for the GOP nomination. The primary process is likely to come down to an establishment candidate versus a Values Voter one. It soon will be a time for choosing. Let’s hope GOP primary voters choose wisely.
(Unless otherwise noted, the opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Family Association or American Family Radio.)