Donald Trump continues to amaze. Wednesday afternoon, he strode onto the Regent University stage (an influential Christian University) and received a prolonged standing ovation from the evangelical audience. He went on to speak eloquently about the importance of family (he even brought out his two sons who spoke highly of him), nominating pro-life judges, defending Israel, etc. After hearing what he had to say, he left over an hour later to another standing ovation. I saw it with my own two eyes. I was there as the moderator of this presidential forum. After seeing those evangelicals rise to their feet, I thought to myself how Ted Cruz must be downing huge Alka-Seltzer tablets as we speak. After all, it was Cruz who was supposed to get all the love from evangelicals. Instead, Trump has invaded his turf. What happened?
Let’s start with this: Ted Cruz is in the process of being defined and if he doesn’t turn his narrative around quickly, he’ll be “Texas Toast” on Super Tuesday. He has to win his home state of Texas and while he has a good shot at it there’s still about a week to go. Unfortunately for Cruz, he lost control of the narrative right after Iowa. He won the evangelical vote by 13% over Trump but then things changed. The “dirty tricks” story about Ben Carson broke the next day along with the ethically challenged Iowa mailer they sent out that Iowa election officials had a few problems with. Trump and Rubio pounced on the “liar, phony” theme and it began to stick. If you’re running as the evangelical candidate, the last thing you can afford is a narrative that paints you as the guy who plays dirty. Fast-forward two weeks later to South Carolina. Cruz went from winning the evangelical vote by 13% In Iowa to losing it by 7% in South Carolina. That’s a 20-point swing in Trump’s favor. Nevada just continued the trend Tuesday night.
Trump, on the other hand, is coming across as a, “shoot from the hip straight talking street fighter” that will go down swinging for Christianity (whatever that means exactly). The evangelicals that support Trump trust his words. Why? Because Trump’s brand is winning and success so they see someone that delivers and follows through on his promises. It’s simply an intangible that you can’t create in a test tube. Trump also shows that he relates well to blue-collar evangelicals. These are Reagan Democrats, the exact voters that Cruz needs and has been courting but instead it’s Trump who has forged that emotional bond with them. There’s a reason for that.
You see, Trump is a true outsider who speaks like a true outsider. That leads to authenticity. Cruz, on the other hand is trying to play the outsider role but from an inside position. He’s a U.S. Senator, who speaks like a U.S. Senator. In other words, he doesn’t give voters the same authentic vibe as Trump. And that’s a problem. Ultimately, politics is about forging an emotional connection with voters. Bill Clinton did it. George W. Bush did it. Barack Obama did it. And Donald Trump is now doing it. Is it fair to someone like Cruz who is a staunch rock-ribbed conservative? No it’s not. Is it a reality? Unfortunately for Cruz it is. So what can Cruz do? Honestly, he has to continue to hammer home the “fake conservative” Trump storyline and hope that it will eventually stick with voters. The problem is that Cruz has pretty much thrown the kitchen sink at Trump and many evangelicals are doing a collective yawn. That’s a problem.
Look, evangelicals are not a monolithic group. Trump may be leading with evangelicals but there are plenty that want nothing to do with him. But he’s attracting more than enough to win these primaries and Super Tuesday could bring more of the same. In 2008, Barack Obama promised, “Hope and Change” and voters bought it. Trump is promising to, “Make America Great Again.” and voters seem to be buying what he’s selling. Will he deliver if he becomes President of the United States? That’s unknown. What is known is that Donald Trump gets standing ovations from evangelicals because when it comes to political correctness, or ISIS, or defending Christianity or restoring America’s standing in the world or just plain winning again for this country, they believe he’ll fight and get the job done. Many evangelicals are saying Amen to what Trump is preaching.