Billionaire Donald Trump easily won the Republican primary Feb. 20 in the evangelical Christian stronghold of South Carolina, strengthening his frontrunner’s status for the presidential nomination.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton defeated Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Nevada caucuses the same day, providing an important victory after her 20-point loss in New Hampshire. The former secretary of state and first lady gained 52.6 percent of the vote, while Sanders, a self-described socialist, polled 47.3.
Trump won all 50 GOP delegates in play in South Carolina, receiving 32.5 percent of the vote. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz finished second and third with 22.5 and 22.3 percent, respectively. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s fourth-place finish with 7.8 percent prompted him to suspend his campaign.
Trump’s triumph demonstrated that the strength of his appeal to GOP voters stretches from secular New England, where he won by nearly 20 percent Feb. 9 in New Hampshire, to what is considered the deeply religious South.
The success among self-identified evangelicals in South Carolina of the thrice-married celebrity with inconsistent policy positions and a caustic, coarse delivery on the stump nearly mirrored his total among all Republican voters in the state. Two-thirds of GOP voters identified themselves as “white evangelical or born-again Christians” in exit polls, according to The New York Times. Of those, Trump received the support of 34 percent, Cruz 26 and Rubio 21.
How many of the South Carolina evangelicals who voted for Trump actually attend a church service regularly is in question. Reuters polling nationally in late summer showed evangelical GOP primary voters who go to church as little as once a month are half as likely to support Trump (21 percent) as those who attend less often, according to a report by The Federalist.
That distinction between churchgoing and non-churchgoing evangelicals “highlights the shifting nature of the Bible Belt as it relates to nominal, cultural Christianity,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Much, Moore said, “hangs in the balance in this election, from concerns on human dignity, marriage and religious freedom. The next generation must raise up Christians who see themselves as kingdom citizens first and Americans citizens second.”
Barry Creamer, president of Criswell College and professor of humanities at the Dallas school, said regarding Trump’s success among evangelicals, “Probably the starkest indictment against the depth of American evangelicalism is how indistinct its political expressions are from the secular world. When celebrity, profanity, anger and quick speech characterize the preferred candidate among evangelicals, just what is it that identifies them as Christian?”
The political parties next swap states in the nomination process, with Republicans caucusing in Nevada Feb. 23 and the Democrats holding their primary in South Carolina Feb. 27.
The biggest day of the primary election season occurs March 1, when both parties hold primaries in nine states – seven in the South – and caucuses in two. The GOP also will have caucuses in three additional states.
In the race for Republican delegates, Trump has 61 delegates, Cruz 11 and Rubio 10. The other candidates remaining – Ohio Gov. John Kasich and famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson – have 5 and 3, respectively.
With Bush out less than two weeks after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina departed the race, it may be a matter of time before Carson and Kasich also halt their campaigns.
Cruz and Rubio appear to be battling to qualify for the chance to defeat Trump in a head-on, two-man race. His second-place finish in South Carolina, though narrow, lifted Rubio’s hopes of being the survivor against his fellow freshman senator.
Cruz “appeared to lose the most,” said Bruce Ashford, provost and professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, since “he has focused his campaign on winning the vote of very conservative voters and the religious right, especially in the South. If he can’t win the South by a fairly wide margin, he can’t win the nomination. And if he couldn’t win South Carolina, it is difficult to envision him winning the South.”
Bush’s departure from the race likely will help Rubio most, Ashford said. “Not only are Bush’s supporters more likely to vote for Rubio, but Bush’s concession could rapidly consolidate the Republican mainstream, showering [Rubio] with endorsements and donations.”
The GOP primary in South Carolina was “a mixed bag” for conservative evangelicals who seek a president who is “pro-life, pro-marriage and pro-religious liberty,” Ashford said.
“On the negative side, the winner of the S.C. primary seems soft or questionable on exactly those issues, while the candidate who appears to have lost the most, Ted Cruz, is strong on each of those questions,” he said. “The good news is that Marco Rubio fared better than predicted, and he, like Cruz, is strongly pro-life, pro-marriage and pro-religious liberty.”
Regarding the Clinton win in Nevada, Ashford said the result demonstrates the problems for Sanders going forward.
The senator from Vermont “faces unified and determined opposition from the [Democratic National Committee] establishment,” he said. “He seems also unable or unwilling to shift the emphasis of his message depending upon the audience. Ultimately, he has only one idea to communicate – that America is a land of deplorable economic injustice in which the system is rigged in favor of the rich. This message alone will not earn him the nomination.”
For evangelicals, Ashford said, the bad news on the Democratic side is both Clinton and Sanders “are vigorously pro-abortion, reject the traditional view of marriage and are questionable in their support for a robust freedom of religion.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)