On Ted Cruz's Courtship of Conservative Christian Voters

The Austin American Statesman's Jonathan Tilove does a great job this morning of rounding up the extended coverage of the first political ad of the 2016 presidential election, a meditation on the importance of faith by Texas Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz that originally aired Friday during Fox News' 3-hour broadcast of Killing Jesus. Absent any other announced candidates – at least until tomorrow – much of the weekend's coverage was spent questioning Cruz's seemingly exclusionary approach. In a major departure from this view of Cruz's chances, Politico's Alex Isenstadt makes a compelling case that Cruz's only path to the nomination is to become the standard bearer of the Tea Party Republicans and to combine that with substantial support from evangelicals. Isenstandt, based on interviews with Cruz advisors, writes that Cruz's strategy doesn't rely on winning evangelicals outright, a tall order given the likely presence of previous favorites like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum in the race. Rather, it merely requires being sufficiently competitive among evangelicals to substantially augment his strong Tea Party backing.

Both Cruz's standing with these constituencies in Texas and the timing of the Texas primary in the 2016 contest suggest that this strategy makes sense for Cruz. He is well positioned among both groups in his home state, suggesting that if he builds a foundation among these groups in the early primary and caucus states, he is likely to augment that coalition in Texas. Texas is scheduled to hold a March 1 primary, with its large number of delegates likely to be apportioned among competitive candidate if there are still multiple candidates in the race with no clear front runner. It is one of the big early prizes after evangelical-rich Iowa, more secular New Hampshire, and another evangelical rich state in South Carolina.

Cruz's support among Tea Party Republicans in Texas is without question. He is viewed favorably by 90 percent of them, and is the choice of 34 percent of them in the February 2015 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Very favorable2%37%69%
Somewhat favorable5%20%21%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable10%17%5%
Somewhat unfavorable9%12%1%
Very unfavorable67%6%4%
Don't know/no opinion7%9%1%

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categoryRepublicanTea Party
Ted Cruz16%34%
Rick Perry11%5%
Ben Carson7%14%
Jeb Bush15%4%
Rand Paul3%4%
Mike Huckabee6%4%
Marco Rubio4%3%
Chris Christie4%1%
Bobby Jindal1%2%
Scott Walker15%21%
Rick Santorum1%0%
John Kasich0%1%
John Bolton0%0%
Lindsey Graham1%0%
Sarah Palin2%3%
No Opinion14%6%

Tea Party Republican voters have had a decisive influence in Texas' Republican primaries of late, from Cruz's nomination over sitting Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst for his current Senate seat in 2012 through the 2014 primaries. Cruz clearly holds an advantage in his home state with these voters. Texas' anemic voter turnout has remained consistently low whether one examines off-year statewide primaries or presidential primary contests. The exception was turnout in 2008, which was three times greater than the 2006 primary for governor, and two times greater than the 2010 primary. Like 2008, 2016 will feature no incumbent on the ballot and a competitive primary field; unlike 2008, Texas will have an early date on the primary calendar that should lavish the lone star state with lots of early media and candidate attention. These factors should combine to produce higher than average turnout, and we should expect Cruz to look beyond his Tea Party base given the likelihood of an electorate that looks different than the 2012 GOP primary electorate that so fervently embraced him.

If the Cruz campaign is looking to strengthen his support among evangelicals, there is a constituency for him to court in Texas, where 74 percent of registered voters say that religion is either somewhat (28 percent) or extremely important (46 percent) in their lives. Thirty-four percent say that the Bible is the actual word of God, to be taken literally word for word. Almost as many non-Tea Party Republicans (39 percent) support this interpretation of the Bible as Tea Party Republicans (41 percent), and similar percentages of non-Tea Party Republicans (52 percent) and Tea Party Republicans (54 percent) say that religion is extremely important to them. Church attendance tells a similar story, with non-Tea Party Republicans slightly more likely to go to church more than once a week (21 percent) or once a week (23 percent) than Tea Party Republicans (17 percent and 21 percent, respectively). This is all to say that Cruz's extended hand to evangelical primary voters is a good bet for expanding his appeal in an early primary state (three if you count Iowa and South Carolina) where he already has, or is likely to have, significant Tea Party support. 

To say that this is an exclusionary strategy, destined to fail because of the small percentage of the general electorate that evangelicals actually encompasses misses the point. In the here and now, competing with Huckabee and Santorum for evangelicals is the best way for Cruz to expand his brand, with the goal being to do just enough (if, most optimistically, more than enough) to remain a top-tier candidate after the early primary contests. Cruz starts 2015 being viewed very favorably by 37 percent of Texans who think the Bible as the actual word of God and somewhat favorably by 17 percent. However, if we restrict our focus only to only Republicans, 73 percent of GOP literalists hold a favorable view of Cruz – a number that is likely to go up if Cruz continues courting them.

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categoryBible is the word of God, to be taken literallyBible is the word of God, not to be taken literallyBible is a book written by men
Very favorable37%31%7%
Somewhat favorable17%17%9%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable13%12%9%
Somewhat unfavorable6%11%6%
Very unfavorable19%21%59%
Don't know/no opinion9%8%10%

Iowa is a good place to test out this strategy, and Texas is a close second having just elected a Lieutenant Governor all too happy to claim (to anyone who's listening) that he's a Christian first, a Conservative second, and a Republican third. The last two GOP presidential nomination contests can be understood as a center-right candidate alternately beseeching and cajoling the party's right wing to compromise with them for the purpose of electability – with the far right then suffering a serious case of buyers' remorse in the aftermath of general election losses. Cruz's effort to bind together elements of the GOP's far-right in strong early primary showings reverses this dynamic. Instead of asking the far-right to work with the establishment to nominate an electable candidate, Cruz aims to induce the establishment to compromise with his brand of conservatism after he's united a critical mass of the far-right to his cause. While the far right (like their counterparts on the far left of the Democratic Party) are frequently criticized as ideologues unlikely to compromise for the sake of unity and electoral victory, Cruz's strategy seeks to turn that formulation on its head by gaining enough delegates and unity on the far right to induce the centrist establishment to compromise with them this time around. The Catch-22 is that if this strategy begins to show signs of success, it is likely to hasten the efforts of establishment moderates to quickly agree on a consensus candidate to counteract the right.  For the moment, however, there is little sign of that agreement – and more indications that Cruz is acting early and decisively to assert his own strategy, and, if all goes well, impose it on the field.

Keywords: 2016 election, ted cruz