Cruz sprinkled religious references throughout his speech. To roaring applause, he proclaimed that if he’s elected president, “the persecution of religious liberty ends today!” He name-checked his recent endorsement from Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. He quoted from the Bible and closed the event with a prayer. Most pro-Cruz attendees interviewed said the senator’s attacks against Trump over his “New York values”—a ploy to raise questions about Trump’s conservatism—resonated with them.
“Cruz has clearly gotten momentum and he’s built a very, very strong ground game here,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, who offered Cruz an enthusiastic introduction at the event, but declined to endorse him. “We don’t have the compactness of New Hampshire, we don’t have caucuses like Iowa, so ground game here is a big deal.” Cruz’s ground game, according to other GOP insiders, is the best in the state because of his support among evangelicals.
Cruz’s energy with evangelical voters contrasted greatly with the muted receptions given the state’s establishment. In a symbolic sign of the decline, home-state Sen. Lindsey Graham announced his endorsement of Jeb Bush in a low-key event in Charleston the day after the debate. Normally, this would be a consequential moment. But it barely registered: Bush has been fading in the polls despite spending aggressively, and Graham had dropped out of the race after polling poorly even in his home state.
Meanwhile, Marco Rubio’s path to victory in the state relies on cutting into Cruz’s advantage with evangelicals while also consolidating support from the establishment. Graham’s endorsement of Bush was a setback, but if his faith-based pitch in Iowa is successful, he’ll have an opportunity to make inroads with Cruz’s base—particularly with younger, less-partisan evangelicals.
Evangelicals have long played a pivotal role in South Carolina politics—former McCain campaign manager John Weaver credited “Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell” for George W. Bush’s 2000 victory—and their clout has grown since. In 2008, Mike Huckabee comfortably won born-again Christians with 43 percent of the Republican vote, according to exit polls, but still lost the state to McCain. Four years later, evangelicals made up an even larger share of the electorate (67 percent of all primary voters), and Gingrich won 44 percent of their support despite his much-publicized personal foibles. That was more than enough to give him a comfortable victory over Mitt Romney in South Carolina.
The key question is whether Trump can hold onto his own support from evangelical voters, even as he’s been resisted by religious leaders. Gingrich overcame his own past baggage to handily win over evangelicals, even as Rick Santorum aggressively courted them from the right. Trump will be following a similar playbook, hoping that voters are so angry that ideology trumps religiosity.