For the third straight cycle, the Republican caucus in Iowa was won by the candidate who built a ground game targeting conservative Evangelicals. And like Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012, Ted Cruz benefited from a higher-than-expected percentage of caucusgoers who fit that description (60 percent in 1980, 57 percent in 2012, and a booming 64 percent this year, according to entrance polls).
Huckabee was ultimately felled by a lack of money and by conservative competition in the key states of South Carolina and Florida that allowed John McCain to win both states. Santorum was similarly undercut by Newt Gingrich in early primaries but, like Huckabee, also suffered from an inability to win many voters outside the Evangelical camp.
Cruz managed to dispose of both Huckabee and Santorum (who just folded his campaign today) after Iowa, along with Rand Paul (who also quit today), which gives him more running room on the movement-conservative right than either previous caucus winner enjoyed. He’s also much better financed than the perennially cash-strapped Huck was in 2008, and has a broader donor base than Santorum (heavily dependent on Foster Friess, a single super-pac donor) in 2012. But Cruz, too, could be constrained by the size of the Evangelical vote in upcoming states; he ran a poor third in Iowa among non-Evangelical caucusgoers.
So it’s worth a good look at the calendar and where white Christian soldiers do and don’t dominate. Fortunately, Geoffrey Skelley of Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball looked at past exit-poll data to tabulate estimates of the Evangelical percentage of Republican primary and caucus participants by state, and correlated it to the 2016 calendar. New Hampshire famously has a relatively small Evangelical electorate (21 percent), as does Nevada, which caucuses on February 23 (24 percent, though this number could be supplemented by outsize LDS participation). But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent. That’s quite a potential hunting ground for Ted Cruz. But he’d better bag the limit, since after March 15 there are only four states, none of them all that large, with estimated white-Evangelical majorities of the primary vote: Indiana, West Virginia, Montana, and South Dakota.
Cruz’s path to the nomination, then, requires a favorable combination of three factors: (1) big and consistent wins in the states with Republican electorates most like Iowa (Huck ran out of gas before many of them voted, and Santorum lost in some of the larger Evangelical-heavy states like Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina); (2) a favorable landscape of surviving opponents for as long as possible, whether it’s multiple “Establishment” candidates or Rubio and Trump blasting away at each other; or (3) a breakout by Cruz into other demographics making him competitive in less Evangelical states.
Just as nobody might have guessed the hypertraditionalist Catholic Rick Santorum would have become the Evangelical favorite in 2012, it seems strange that someone of Cuban descent born in Canada would be the leading candidate among white conservative Evangelicals this time around, with challenges in and beyond this constituency from another Cuban-American and Donald Trump. But that’s how the “little cracker” crumbles, as Trump might say.