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Ted Cruz’s evangelical problem

The day Ted Cruz announced he was running for president, in March 2015, he began his speech to thousands of cheering Christian evangelical students, “God bless Liberty University.”

One year later to the day, Cruz stood in midtown Manhattan under crystal chandeliers and addressed a suit-clad crowd much the same way, “God bless the great state of New York.”

Cruz’s unapologetic brand of Christian conservatism hasn’t changed much in the past 12 months, but the political terrain of the 2016 campaign has. After meticulously building an evangelical base that delivered Cruz an opening victory in Iowa and helped him amass the second-most delegates to Donald Trump through March, the Texas senator now faces a gantlet of some of the least religious states in the country. As few as four of the remaining states are projected to have a majority-evangelical GOP electorate.

Much has been made over the past few days of Trump’s challenges in securing enough delegates to win the nomination. But unless Cruz can quickly make inroads with non-evangelical voters who so far have mostly rejected him, he has little chance of stopping Trump. So far, the candidate who disparaged his rival’s “New York values” has shown no sign of tweaking his message to appeal to a less religious coastal electorate, gambling instead that antipathy toward Trump will be enough to draw those voters into his camp.

“You can safely say that his best days are behind him when it comes to the solid evangelical states,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll. “He’s going to have to appeal to people who are not necessarily terribly religious at this point.”

Cruz’s first test comes in Wisconsin, where he’s emerged as the leading anti-Trump candidate. A Marquette University poll this week showed Cruz leading Trump by 10 points and, as significantly, hitting a new high-water mark of 35 percent among non-evangelicals. But Wisconsin is still more evangelical than many of the delegate-rich states that will follow.

Gone from the calendar are deeply evangelical states like Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas and the entire South. Up next are some of the country’s least religious states, including New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and California. By one measure, 14 of the 15 most religious states, as ranked by the Pew Research Center, have already voted in the Republican primary. Nine of the 20 least religious states are still to come.

In the states that have already voted, exit polling has shown the Texas senator consistently failing to connect with non-evangelical Republicans.

Cruz has topped 30 percent among non-evangelicals in only one of the 20 states with exit polls — his home state of Texas. In 15 of those 20 states, Cruz scored in the teens or single digits among non-evangelical GOP voters.

Those are the very voters who will dominate the coming states.

“Evangelicals will play an important role,” Dan Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute, said of the states set to vote soon. “But it will be less a starring role.”

An analysis from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics last fall projected that only four of the 17 remaining states will have a majority-white evangelical electorate. That shift in political topography is as dramatic as it is problematic for Cruz.

UVA estimated that 64 percent of the Republican delegates up for grabs between Feb. 1 and March 8 came from states where white evangelical Christians comprised a majority or more of the GOP electorate.

But in the final three months of the primary, the center projected that less than 21 percent of the delegates would come from such majority-evangelical states.

“He certainly can’t rely on them to turn out enough people to win these states,” Rick Tyler, Cruz’s former communications director, said of evangelical voters. “The numbers just aren’t there.”

Even before his symbolic launch at Liberty University, Cruz had constructed his campaign around securing the support of the influential conservative evangelical movement, aggressively courting its leadership, speaking their language on the trail, and dispatching his pastor-father as a top surrogate.

The campaign’s blueprint was hardly a secret: Tap into evangelicals to win in Iowa and then surge through South Carolina and the southern states that voted on Super Tuesday to build an insurmountable delegate lead. His campaign manager bragged that his toddler couldn’t have drawn a better map.

It’s why Cruz long predicted the nominating contest would be over by mid-March.

“If you look at how the primary calendar was designed, it looked tailor-made for a candidate like Cruz,” Cox said.

Then Trump happened. Cruz decried the businessman’s “New York values” only to watch him win among evangelicals in South Carolina and in some of the states that followed. Cruz outperformed his other rivals with religious Republicans, and their dominant role early in the calendar lifted him to second place.

Now that strength threatens to box him in.

Jason Miller, a senior Cruz adviser, disagreed, noting that his candidate won in a diverse set of states, including Texas, Utah (where Mormon voters strongly opposed Trump), Alaska and Maine. The latter two were caucuses that have favored Cruz’s superior grass-roots operation.

“We’ve won in places with large evangelical communities, we’ve won in places that do not have large evangelical communities,” Miller said. “What we have done is to unite conservatives, to unite evangelicals and to unite the Republican Party to defeat Donald Trump.”

Cruz’s campaign and his allies believe his emergence as the leading anti-Trump figure is bringing together elements of the party that had been reluctant to embrace him. Cruz points to his unlikely cast of recent endorsers, from Mitt Romney to Jeb Bush to Scott Walker.

“This campaign is a binary between people who are for Donald Trump and people who want to stop Donald Trump,” Tyler said. “And Ted Cruz is obviously in line with people who want to stop Donald Trump.”

While Cruz faces a demographic crunch among non-evangelicals, Trump must contend with a calendar where most of the remaining states are closed to GOP voters only, a restriction that has favored Cruz. And despite Trump’s front-runner status, he has remained stuck below 50 percent support almost everywhere.

The greatest challenge for Cruz will come in the delegate-rich Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic, where Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland are also still to vote.

“I’m not so sure how well Cruz will do in Pennsylvania,” said Rob Gleason, the longtime state Republican Party chairman. “A lot of people see him as really extreme. They don’t see Donald Trump as extreme. Amazing, isn’t it?”

Pennsylvania ranks in the middle of the pack for the size of its evangelical population. Four of the bottom six states for white evangelicals (New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut, according to the American Values Atlas) are still to vote.

Also still standing in Cruz’s way from becoming the lone vessel for the anti-Trump movement is John Kasich, who has won only his home state of Ohio but who has said his Midwestern brand of conservatism is a better fit for the upcoming states. He has repeatedly said his performance will improve as the race heads “north.”

There is some evidence that, as the 2016 contest has narrowed, Cruz’s vote share among non-evangelicals has risen. In Illinois and Missouri, which voted on March 15, Cruz received 27 percent of the non-evangelical vote — his best showing outside of Texas. (There were no exit surveys in Arizona and Utah, which voted March 22.)

But Cruz begins with a tremendous amount of ground to make up, especially in the Northeast.

In Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, Cruz received meager support among non-evangelicals (7 percent, 8 percent and 9 percent, respectively), according to exit polls.

But Iowa Rep. Steve King, a national campaign co-chairman for Cruz who is close with the senator, said the dynamics have changed since then. “The race is different now. It’s gone from 17 down to two” viable candidates, he said.

Still, King didn’t expect Cruz to tailor a less overtly religious message in the coming weeks and months.

“I don’t know that Ted Cruz will modulate,” King said. “He’s got a message for America that he put together at the beginning of this campaign, and it’s been consistent.”

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