Maverick candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders easily won Feb. 9 in the first primary election to determine the major political parties’ nominees for the White House.
Trump – the brash, billionaire businessman and celebrity – outdistanced the crowded Republican field by nearly 20 points to gain victory in the New Hampshire primary. Sanders, the United States senator from neighboring Vermont who describes himself as a socialist, dominated Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic primary by more than 20 percent.
The Republican presidential candidates take their campaign to South Carolina, which holds its primary Feb. 20. The next Democratic contest is the Nevada caucus the same day.
For the GOP, the move south will bring the evangelical Christian vote more into play. Exit polls in New Hampshire showed only 23 percent of Republican primary voters identified as “white evangelical or white born-again Christians.” Of those voters, 27 percent voted for Trump, 23 percent for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, 13 percent for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and 11 percent each for Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
The New Hampshire win after a second-place finish in the Iowa caucus Feb. 1 provides Trump with momentum heading to South Carolina. That state’s primary will provide the first sample of how much backing a candidate with multiple marriages, a past of abortion rights support and a recent history of anti-religious freedom rhetoric can gain from southern evangelicals.
Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore described Sanders and Trump as “the two most thoroughly secular candidates we have seen in years.”
Their victories came in a state that was recognized Feb. 4 by the Gallup polling organization as the least religious in the country.
“Their ascendancy is one more reminder that evangelical Christianity is a minority viewpoint in 21st Century America,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “We have much work to do to persuade our fellow citizens that matters of human dignity and religious liberty are in the common good.
“More importantly, our celebrity-crazed moment should remind us of the mission field to which we have been called,” he said. “The Christian witness will sound all the more distinct in this culture, but the more distinct it is, the more powerful.”
Bruce Ashford, provost and professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “Even a few months ago, it would have surprised most Americans to be told that New Hampshire voters would nominate a socialist and a nationalist for the nation’s highest office. But that is indeed what happened” in the primary.
In New Hampshire, Trump received 35.3 percent of the GOP votes, according to The New York Times. Kasich surged to finish second with 15.8 percent, while Cruz – the Iowa winner – took third with 11.7 percent and Bush fourth with 11 percent. Rubio ended up fifth with 10.6 percent. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and famed surgeon Ben Carson gained 7.4, 4.1 and 2.3 percent, respectively.
In the Democratic vote, Sanders won 60.4 percent. Clinton, the former first lady and secretary of State, received 38 percent.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a popular cultural commentator, described the majority vote for “an avowed Democratic socialist” as “a sea change in politics, almost a political revolution, and whoever becomes the eventual Democratic nominee, the Democratic Party – this announces – is marching steadily to the left.”
Meanwhile, the GOP voters’ failure to narrow the race to two or three major candidates, Mohler said on his podcast, “The Briefing,” Feb. 10, means “there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to who will be eventually among the top two or top three vote-getters as the Republican nomination race continues.”
Ashford said, “It appears that the GOP field is in for a long nomination fight that will span many states and cost an enormous amount of money. At this point, the closest contender [to Trump] is Ted Cruz, followed perhaps by Marco Rubio, who, despite his lackluster showing, probably stands the best chance of winning the general election.”
In the delegate count for New Hampshire, Trump won 10 delegates, Kasich four, and Cruz, Bush and Rubio three apiece, The Times reported. Sanders gained 15 delegates and Clinton nine.
Rubio’s fifth-place finish proved a significant setback after his strong third place in Iowa and a week marked by endorsements from former GOP presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and evangelical author and speaker Joni Eareckson Tada.
Rubio and Clinton were two candidates who “fared poorly, but not poorly enough to hinder themselves from performing well in upcoming primaries,” Ashford said. “Rubio’s disappointing finish probably owes to his lackluster performance in the ABC debate and his assertion that women should be required to sign up for the draft.”
Though Rubio stood second in the New Hampshire polls before the Feb. 6 debate, his response to attacks from Christie during the debate proved disastrous in the eyes of most observers. When asked in the debate, Rubio joined Christie and Bush in supporting women registering with the Selective Service System.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)