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The GOP Establishment May Need Religious Voters To Stop Donald Trump

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

That’s what I imagine Reince Priebus, head of the Republican National Committee, repeating to himself as he tries to fall asleep every night. Because here’s the problem for a Republican establishment hoping to avoid nominating Donald Trump: Trump continues to lead poll after poll, and he’s held a consistent edge among all ideological groups nationally and in most states, including New Hampshire. To beat Trump, the establishment may have to defeat him in Iowa, but recently, the Iowa caucuses have been unwelcoming to establishment-approved candidates.

Still, there’s a way to square that circle. The GOP establishment doesn’t need to win Iowa — it just needs Trump to lose. And the establishment may have to rely on an old frenemy to make that happen: born-again and evangelical Christians.

Iowa has been among Trump’s weakest states. Since he entered the race, Trump has averaged 20 percent of the vote in live-interview polls in Iowa, compared with 24 percent nationally. Moreover, it’s the rare state where someone has been able to overtake him in the polls. That weakness has been driven by the skepticism of religious voters. In all four Quinnipiac University polls taken in Iowa since late June, Trump has underperformed among born-again and evangelical Christians. He’s earned 16 percent of the born-again/evangelical vote, on average, compared with 24 percent with everyone else.1

That’s a big deal in a state in which 57 percent of caucus-goers identified as born-again or evangelical Christians in 2012.

It’s not yet clear which candidate religious voters in Iowa will rally behind, or if they will rally behind anyone. Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, didn’t come on strong until the month before the actual voting. As of a late November Quinnipiac survey, it seemed as if the born-again/evangelical vote was shifting from Ben Carson (in second place with 24 percent) to Ted Cruz (with 27 percent).

Whoever does win Iowa will receive a lot of great press. Trump, if he loses, will likely receive a lot of negative press, particularly if he disappoints relative to expectations. That’s important because the primary calendar is stacked — New Hampshire votes eight days after Iowa — so momentum is key. A loss in Iowa could drag Trump down in New Hampshire. Of course, a Trump win would probably slap analysts such as myself into the reality that Trump has a better than decent shot of winning the nomination.

But let’s say Carson wins Iowa. The GOP establishment probably doesn’t want to nominate Carson much more than it wants to nominate Trump, but a Carson win is still preferable to a Trump one because Carson would have a hard time capitalizing in New Hampshire, which is full of moderate and liberal Republicans. That’s why Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie have been spending so much time in the Granite State. They’re hoping that Iowa wounds Trump, the Iowa winner is unacceptable to New Hampshire voters, and Bush, Christie or Kasich can pick up the scraps of Trump’s support.

There is danger in the establishment relying on the born-again/evangelical vote to derail Trump. What if Cruz wins Iowa and then wins or overperforms in New Hampshire? Cruz isn’t exactly loved by his colleagues in Washington, and he might not be that much more acceptable to establishment Republicans than Trump. Nor is it clear that Cruz, who is quite conservative, would be any more electable than Trump, who some have argued is a type of moderate.

History suggests, however, that this risk might be worth taking. In every Republican primary since 1988, the eventual nominee2 — with the exception of George W. Bush in 2000 — has performed relatively poorly in Iowa because he didn’t appeal to religious voters. At the same time, religious voters in Iowa have repeatedly kept strong challengers to the eventual nominee — maybe the strongest — from winning the state or winning by a bigger margin:

  • Bob Dole won in Iowa in 1988, but the big story coming out of those caucuses was Pat Robertson’s second-place finish. Robertson won half the evangelical Christian vote. Dole would have won well over 40 percent of the caucus vote without Robertson in the race and might have had enough of a boost to defeat George H.W. Bush — the eventual nominee — in New Hampshire.
  • Dole won Iowa again in 1996, with Lamar Alexander running as the more electable alternative. Alexander came in a clear second place among Iowa voters who did not identify as members of the “religious right.” Unfortunately for him, he earned just 7 percent of the religious right vote. That meant, coming out of Iowa, he split the limelight with the winner of the religious vote, Pat Buchanan. Buchanan rode that momentum into New Hampshire, where he inched out a victory over Dole, who finished second, and Alexander, who finished third. But then Dole swept almost every other primary.
  • Going into Iowa in 2008, Mitt Romney was leading in New Hampshire polls and was a close second to John McCain in the endorsement primary. Remember, Romney was seen as the more conservative alternative to McCain during that campaign. But it was Mike Huckabee who won Iowa, thanks to winning a huge plurality among born-again and evangelical Christian voters. Huckabee was just the type of candidate who does well in Iowa but not in New Hampshire, and in blocking Romney in Iowa, Huckabee allowed McCain to take New Hampshire.3
  • Just last cycle, Rick Perry was the only candidate who showed any signs of life in the endorsement primary besides Romney (who was now playing the role of establishment favorite). Perry had a mini-surge in Iowa before his campaign collapsed and born-again evangelical voters decided to rally behind Santorum instead. Santorum, like Huckabee, couldn’t translate Iowa success to the Granite State. Romney won New Hampshire and the nomination.

Among this list, 2008 is probably the closest analog the Republican establishment can hope for. Not only was that a cycle in which there was no clear establishment choice, but it was also a situation in which the candidate the eventual nominee was hoping to knock out (Romney) had a clear lead in the New Hampshire primary. Romney lost New Hampshire by just under 6 percentage points; winning Iowa may have put him over the top in the Granite State.

How does that work this cycle? Carson could finish first to Trump’s second and Cruz’s third in Iowa — followed by a New Hampshire win for Christie, who has been working that state as relentlessly as McCain did in 2000 and 2008. That could set up an extended primary.

Or maybe Carson wins Iowa, with Cruz second and Rubio (who has had some strong religious moments on the campaign trail) third. Then Rubio goes on to garner a lot of the establishment and moderate support in New Hampshire, which could propel him to victory there and start a cascade effect in later primaries.

With no clear establishment choice as of yet, a Trump loss in Iowa could keep the primary wide open. But the longer Trump leads nationally and in New Hampshire, the best bet for the panicked establishment to beat him could very well be throwing in with born-again and evangelical voters in Iowa.

Footnotes

  1. The gap is comparable to the oft-discussed gap in Trump support between college graduates and non-graduates.

  2. Excluding incumbent presidents running for re-election.

  3. McCain and Huckabee teamed up again in the West Virginia caucuses.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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