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Opinion Three reasons evangelicals can’t save the Republican establishment from Donald Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, seen in reflection, poses for a portrait following an interview with the Associated Press at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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Republicans have a major problem. There is growing fear that Donald Trump may be more than an entertaining side-show. He might just become the nominee, which is widely viewed as a catastrophe for the GOP.

Harry Enten of Five Thirty Eight has suggested that the so-called Republican establishment may need to be rescued by conservative Christian voters.

“The GOP establishment doesn’t need to win Iowa — it just needs Trump to lose,” Enten wrote. “And the establishment may have to rely on an old frenemy to make that happen: born-again and evangelical Christians.”

Evangelicals may be an old “frenemy,” but they will likely not rescue the Republican establishment. In the old days of the 1980s and 1990s, evangelicals (then known as the Religious Right) were the ground troops for the GOP. They were what labor unions were to the Democrats: a loyal grassroots movement that were needed during the election but often ignored once the votes were counted.

[Evangelical leaders are frantically looking for ways to defeat Donald Trump]

The so-called Republican establishment were business-minded folks who were motivated more by tax cuts and defense spending than by social issues. The establishment didn’t need to worry too much about the presidential primaries because they could make up for their lack of motivated voters with dollars. Year after year, social conservatives rallied around true believers who eventually bowed out. Without the resources to campaign heavily in less conservative states, they dropped out, leaving the general election to candidates with more mainstream appeal.

This year, of course, businessman Donald Trump puts these polite arrangement into disarray. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the candidate of the establishment, raised the early money needed for a strong, long campaign. In normal years, this should have been enough to keep him competitive in the early primaries and then victorious as the race went national. Trump wrecked Bush’s plans. He has entered the field with more personal wealth and free publicity than all of the other candidates combined.

Can evangelicals come together and save the Republican Party from itself? I don’t know if Trump can win, but I have little expectation that he is going to lose because of evangelical voters. Here are three reasons:

1. Evangelicals like Trump, too

Trump is not the top candidate among evangelicals and evangelical leaders, but he still attracts many born-again Iowa caucusgoers. And he’s gaining more support, not less.

According to CNN-ORC polls of likely Iowa Republican voters, Trump now has support from 24 percent of Iowa evangelicals, up from 20 percent in early November. Even with a sizable margin of error, it’s clear that Trump is at least maintaining, if not gaining, among evangelicals in Iowa.

A gap between evangelicals and other Republicans remains, and it is likely to grow as Trump becomes a stronger candidate. Trump is surging among non-evangelical Republicans in Iowa, up from 28 percent to 40 percent in the CNN polls, but he has enough support among evangelicals to keep in a top candidate in the state.

The support from Trump among evangelicals is unlikely to fade. They do, after all, have plenty of acceptable candidates. This isn’t 1988, when some evangelicals balked at religious leader Pat Robertson because of his Pentecostalism and televangelism. Evangelicals who support Trump are doing it despite having several bonafide conservatives in the race.

2. Evangelicals are politically disorganized

One reason for the inability of evangelical Republicans to nominate one of their own is their lack of organization. Baylor University sociologist Lydia Bean, who has looked at evangelical politics closely, says that evangelicals are not a ship to be steered by some religious leader. Evangelicals are more like an armada. There are many, many ships that generally go in the same direction.

Even when evangelicals attempt a coordinated effort, they fail. In 2012, for example, more than 100 evangelical leaders met before the South Carolina primary. They had one goal: pick a candidate to rally behind so that Mitt Romney lost. They chose former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who ended up coming in third in the state primary. Most evangelicals in the state supported the winner, former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

3. Too many candidates

In a head-to-head contest, there could be a candidate who could rally enough evangelicals to beat Trump. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Dr. Ben Carson, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio can divide up support from conservative Christians. If only one of them is still around in a few months, then enough evangelicals may oppose Trump.

Iowa, however, is too early in the process. There are half-a-dozen candidates who can legitimately claim that he or she can survive with a win in Iowa. Evangelicals who like the tea party rhetoric can side with Cruz. Those seeking someone who is willing to go against the establishment may back Carson. Others might vote for Rubio as an electable candidate. The point is that there isn’t just one candidate vying for evangelicals, and each contender has an incentive to stick it out in Iowa.

Tobin Grant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.