NASHVILLE — Businessman Donald Trump has surged in the polls in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and evangelicals, an important base for the Republican Party, appear to favor him as well.
Ahead of Thursday night’s debate in Cleveland, the first debate of the GOP primary, Trump appears to be tapping into Republican voters’ deep fears over the economy. And Republican-leaning white evangelicals, who hold sway in early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina, seem to closely mirror other Republicans.
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted July 16-19, 20 percent of Republican-leaning voters who are white evangelicals support Donald Trump, compared to 24 percent of GOP voters overall and 25 percent of other white Christians (non-evangelicals and Catholics) who support him.
Trump saw his campaign take off after broadly denouncing Mexicans who cross the border illegally, calling them rapists and drug dealers. He also drew attention for saying Sen. John McCain is not a war hero. In the same Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, where he made those comments, Trump was questioned about whether he asks God for forgiveness.
“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “If I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
Trump said he participates in Holy Communion.
“When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed,” he said, according to CNN. “I think in terms of ‘let’s go on and let’s make it right.’ ”
At a gathering of Southern Baptists this week, Russell Moore, president of the policy arm for the Southern Baptist Convention, warned that it might be too early to take the pulse of evangelical voters.
“I haven’t talked to a pastor yet who is supporting Donald Trump,” said Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in an interview with The Washington Post. “I think what’s happening right now is that we’re in the reality TV phase of the presidential campaign where people are looking to send a message rather than hand over the nuclear codes to a person.”
Trump could be reminiscent of Ross Perot, a businessman who ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1992.
“Trump is more flamboyant, but they both tap into that sense of anger a lot of voters had and have,” said John Green, a political science and religion expert at the University of Akron. “Donald Trump’s surge comes partly because Donald Trump is very skilled at getting attention.”
Evangelical voters appear split between other candidates who are trying to catch up to Trump. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee depends on evangelicals for support, but he does not lead among evangelicals as he has in the past. Huckabee (12 percent) is closely competing for evangelical support with former Florida governor Jeb Bush (11 percent) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (14 percent).
Bush made his appeal to 13,000 evangelicals Tuesday in Nashville in an interview with Moore, drawing attention for suggesting that “women’s health issues” could be overfunded. His calls to federally defund Planned Parenthood were cheered by the crowd.
A significant number of Republicans have expressed concerns that Bush is too liberal. Of those surveyed, 33 percent of white evangelical Republican voters expressed concern. By comparison, 15 percent of evangelicals say Trump is too liberal, while 15 percent of evangelicals say the same of Rubio.
Rubio could be more popular among some evangelical leaders than he is among voters. In a survey among 100 evangelical leaders conducted by World magazine asking which of the top four Republican contenders they would vote for, 39 percent of respondents named Rubio as either their first or second choice. Bush came in second as the first or second option for 32 percent of respondents while Walker was third at 28 percent.
However, in the Post-ABC poll, Rubio’s support was slightly lower among white evangelicals – 4 percent versus 11 percent among white Catholic and mainline Protestant Republicans. In the opening Iowa contest, where evangelical Christians made up a majority of caucus-goers in 2012, an NBC-Marist poll last month found Rubio stands at 4 percent among both white evangelical Christians and all potential caucus-goers.
Evangelical Christian Republicans largely have a positive image of Rubio, according to a McClatchy-Marist poll conducted in late July that found 55 percent reporting favorable impressions of him versus 14 percent unfavorable, with a sizable 31 percent saying they were unsure.
Rubio faces different kinds of questions than Bush, Moore said. Despite his strong opposition to abortion, Bush is viewed by some of the right for his relatively moderate views on immigration and Common Core education and for not speaking openly about his opposition to same-sex marriage. Rubio, on the other hand, is seen as a newer, relatively unknown candidate.
“I suppose there are some skeptical that he has the experience to be president,” Moore said. ” ‘Is he a Republican Barack Obama?’ That’s the question he’s facing.”
Evangelicals will look for a candidate who seems to represent them on issues like religious liberty and abortion, but they will also look for someone who can eventually win, said Thomas Kidd, a history professor at Baylor University.
“You can’t overstate how badly evangelicals want a reliable Republican in office – and not a Democrat– to nominate the next justices of the Supreme Court,” Kidd said.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who was fueled by evangelicals in Iowa and in 10 states in 2012, is polling with just 2 percent of evangelical support. An Iowa NBC News/Marist poll released last week found Santorum with 0 percent support among white evangelical Christians.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.