Sen. Ted Cruz put all of his electoral eggs in the evangelical basket. Yet Donald Trump won the group on his way to a broad-based victory in Saturday’s Republican Party primary in South Carolina.
Trump edged Cruz by 5 percentage points among the 68 percent of voters who were born-again Christians, and he also won among non-evangelicals. The results more closely resembled his blowout win in the New Hampshire primary than the Iowa caucuses, where he finished second to Cruz.
In South Carolina, Trump won among men and women. He won among voters earning between $30,000 and $99,000. He won veterans — and voters with no military service. As has been the pattern, Cruz won voters who call themselves “very conservative,” but Trump carried the “somewhat conservative” and moderate vote. Few states are likely to have more than South Carolina’s 38 percent very conservative share — a bad sign for Cruz.
Trump even won by 2 percentage points among voters who said it was very or somewhat important for a candidate to share their values.
Jack Bass, a professor emeritus at the College of Charleston, said he was not surprised by Trump’s performance among religious voters. Many of these voters admire Trump for reasons unrelated to faith, he said.
“Trump’s support is broader than evangelical voters,” he said. “He did well with the evangelical vote, but he did well across the board.”
Bass added, “Probably, attacking the pope didn’t hurt him.”
The exit polls contained some encouraging news for Sen. Marco Rubio. He won among voters earning more than $100,000; voters who live in large cities; those with college degrees; and those younger than 44.
Rubio also won among voters who decided their candidate within the last few days. That may be partially the result of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s decision to back him; a quarter of voters said her endorsement was an important factor in their decision, and Rubio won nearly half of those voters. This would seem to contradict the view that endorsements no longer matter in the race, given the success of Trump and Cruz. Rubio, as the new Establishment standard bearer, is likely to corral lots of endorsements.
Overall, though, the results should frighten anyone in the field not named Donald Trump. Among most subgroups that Trump did not win, he ran a strong second. He was the top choice for handling the economy and dealing with an international crisis.
A staggering 73 percent of voters agreed with his proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from coming into the United States, and he won that group handily. He finished first by far among the 44 percent of voters who agreed illegal immigrants should be deported. But he tied Cruz for second, just 5 percentage points behind Rubio, among the 53 percent who said they should be given a chance to apply for legal status.
Trump’s strength with born-again Christians throws a monkey wrench into Cruz’s long-laid plans of scoring big margins among faith and values voters to win Southern states in the March 1 primary contests. Many of those states have evangelicals in similar numbers to South Carolina. Bass said it remains to be seen whether Cruz can recover.
“Trump will probably win most of them, maybe all of them,” he said of the Super Tuesday states.
For Trump to win, he will have to do so in a smaller field. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced Saturday he was dropping out of the race after a spectacular failure in a state that has been good to the Bush family over the years. Those voters are more likely to head Rubio’s way than Trump’s.