Evangelical leaders are signaling an urgency to find someone other than businessman Donald Trump to win the Republican nomination, releasing endorsements and talking behind closed doors.
Evangelical voters, who are an important voting bloc for the Republican Party and are not easily led by their leaders, are all over the map in polls leading up to the primaries in key states. And many evangelical leaders are struggling to coalesce around one candidate who they believe could beat Trump.
The Republican field is full of candidates who could appeal to evangelicals because of their social conservative positions, including Ben Carson, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee or former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. But interviews with several evangelical insiders this week suggest that leaders are debating whether to support Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) or Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.).
The latest national poll by Quinnipiac University had Trump tied with Cruz for first, at 24 percent, among white evangelical registered Republican voters. The poll, done Nov. 23-30, has Carson at 19 percent and everyone else with 4 percent or less.
However in Iowa, where evangelicals can have the biggest early impact, evangelical voters are moving behind Cruz. According to a Monmouth University survey released Monday, Cruz has 30 percent support from Iowa evangelicals, followed by Trump (18 percent), Rubio (16 percent) and Carson (15 percent).
There are no representative surveys of all evangelical leaders, but informal indicators suggest little support for Trump among elites. Rubio led an October survey of board members of the National Association of Evangelicals asking which candidate they support — including Democratic candidates. Rubio also led an informal survey of 103 evangelical leaders and “insiders” by WORLD magazine, with Cruz and Carly Fiorina also receiving support. Only 1 percent picked Trump.
Cruz has also seen a handful of high-profile endorsements and is expected to win among evangelical voters in Iowa. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and an influential leader among some evangelicals, told The Washington Post that he is endorsing Cruz.
“It does appear that evangelical [voters] are coalescing around Senator Cruz, along with several other coalitions within the Republican field,” Dobson, who is now president of Family Talk, said in an email. “While things can change over time, right now Senator Cruz’s strong record on religious liberty, life and marriage seems to be steadily attracting evangelical voters — a trend I don’t see ending any time soon.”
Dobson said that although he is friends with candidates such as Huckabee, he believes Cruz is the right choice because he is “brilliant, articulate, and well established in his moral and spiritual convictions.”
“I am very wary of Donald Trump,” Dobson said in his email, citing Trump’s business in gambling. “I would never vote for a king pin within that enterprise. Trump’s tendency to shoot from the hip and attack those with whom he disagrees would be an embarrassment to the nation if he should become our Chief Executive. I don’t really believe Trump is a conservative. Finally, I would never under any circumstance vote for Hillary Clinton.”
Dobson’s position characterizes the point of view of many evangelical leaders who are seeking ways to defeat Trump. Many dislike his involvement in gambling and are uncomfortable with his statements. For instance, some leaders cited his reported comments about his daughter’s figure, including: “I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”
The sense of urgency among many evangelical leaders to defeat Trump became clear this week after he proposed that Muslims be temporarily halted from immigrating to the United States.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Trump’s comments this week “provided a sense of clarity” and sparked a backlash among evangelicals.
“Anyone who is familiar with the First Amendment and basic rights of due process in this country would revolt at the idea of what Trump was proposing,” Moore said.
Moore, who said he will not endorse a candidate, believes that evangelical leaders and voters are keeping an open mind but that many assumed that Trump would be out of the race by now.
“It’s suddenly becoming serious for a lot of people,” Moore said. “I know evangelicals and others who laughed along the Trump clownishness in the summer and into the fall who are now taking this seriously because they can’t believe this is happening in our country.”
Not all evangelical leaders were opposed to Trump’s remarks. Famed evangelist Billy Graham’s son Franklin Graham has been urging a halt on Muslim immigration since this summer and reiterated his support for the idea in a Facebook post on Wednesday. “Politicians in Washington seem to be totally disconnected with reality,” he said after House Speaker Paul Ryan criticized Trump.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, has yet to endorse a candidate. He declined to speak about a group of conservatives he has convened behind closed doors and said he is still weighing the presidential field. But he said Trump has tapped into the fear that people have over security.
“I give Donald Trump a lot more credit than some do. I don’t think he misspeaks as much as people think,” Perkins said. “I think in this age of political correctness, in which people refuse to speak with clarity, he is seen as very attractive. I think it’s a mistake to write off Donald Trump. He has tapped something that’s very real across the spectrum, including [among] evangelicals.”
Perkins said a congressional measure that would limit Syrian refugees is “a reasonable approach,” but he added that “I would not talk about it in a way that we should prohibit people of any particular religion.” He said Trump’s comments about Muslims were too broad.
“There are many people in parts of the world who are born into Muslim families, but they don’t necessarily hold to the faith. It’s not a religious test. It’s an ideological test,” Perkins said. “I would avoid making sweeping statements about what our policy should be for a particular class or set of people.”
Evangelicals make up the largest religious group in the country, and they heavily lean Republican. Nearly 70 percent of white evangelicals either identify as Republicans or lean Republican, while 22 percent affiliate with the Democratic Party or lean Democratic, according to the Pew Research Center.
Santorum and Huckabee have drawn support from social conservative evangelicals in the past, but this time around, evangelical leaders have been especially divided over which candidate to support.
“The key is, will evangelicals find a candidate that most of them can agree on?” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. “If they all united behind a particular candidate, it would make it difficult for Trump to win.”
Ohio conservative leader Phil Burress said leaders in his coalition are still deciding whom they will endorse, but he believes there’s a 95 percent chance that they will go with Cruz.
“We’re scared to death right now. This administration is letting these radical Muslims into the country,” Burress said. “This isn’t a war on terrorism. This is a war against radical Islam. We need someone to speak plainly and clearly, and the president refuses to do that. Ted Cruz will call it what it is.”
But Burress also supports Rubio and would back him if he became a front-runner. Some believe Rubio could pull ahead if other leaders drop out of the race, but tea party-leaning evangelicals are nervous about his past work on immigration reform.
Many leaders believe Cruz has a chance to beat Trump, since he has raised the most money after former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Burress said leaders are especially eager to find a way to defeat Trump.
“He is scary. He’ll lead us into World War III in a heartbeat,” Burress said. “He thinks he’s such a great negotiator, but he’s a bully.”
John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Action, has yet to back a candidate and said Cruz has the advantage of receiving support from influential leaders in Texas.
“Cruz is fearless. He is undaunted by confrontation. He is willing to take very unpopular positions and stand alone if necessary,” Stemberger said. “Rubio has an almost identical voting record. He’s extremely winsome, the finest communicator in American politics today.”
The National Organization for Marriage, a group that believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, announced its support for Cruz on Wednesday. “Unless conservatives come together behind a full-spectrum candidate — pro-marriage, pro-life, strong national defense, etc. — there is a real risk that someone like Donald Trump could win the nomination, which would be disastrous,” the group said in a statement.
Richard Viguerie, chairman of Conservative Headquarters and a pioneer in political direct mail, which has been effective with evangelical voters in the past, urged voters to support Cruz, asking on Wednesday: “What are we conservatives waiting for?”
“Along with Ted Cruz’s talent and zest for political combat, and consistent record of supporting conservative policy solutions, goes a methodical self-discipline and self-control that distinguish him from the longtime front runner who has been the other message-carrier for the conservative grassroots and their demand for change in Washington — Donald Trump,” Viguerie wrote.
Because evangelicals are an important voting bloc for the Republican Party, a successful candidate needs to, “at best, effectively reach out to them and at least not offend them,” said Amy Black, political science professor at Wheaton College.
“There’s the potential that if even a slim majority of evangelicals truly coalesced around a candidate and began to activate the grass-roots, I could see that providing significant momentum for a candidate to win,” Black said. “It’s all about momentum.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.