If there is, is there any way to explain it apart from pure spite? Huckabee and Santorum combined are averaging less than three percent in Iowa. Rubio is nearly 20 points behind Cruz in the state. Denying Cruz some extra social-con votes won’t do much to help Rubio but it might be enough to help Donald Trump, the least socially conservative candidate in the race, top Cruz if the caucuses are close. That’s a natural thing to do if you’re angry at Cruz for dislodging your hero as the GOP’s premier evangelical and want to punish him, but as a strategy for affecting the outcome, it’s incoherent.

The only way I can make sense of it is to imagine that anti-Cruz evangelicals are playing a long game. They can’t help Rubio win Iowa, but if they end up helping Trump beat Cruz there, Cruz might be sufficiently wounded that Rubio becomes the social-con choice in South Carolina (especially if he finishes ahead of Cruz in New Hampshire). But there’s a problem with that too. If the goal is to beat Cruz in Iowa by any means necessary, they should be throwing their votes to Trump, not Rubio. Barring a last-minute surprise surge next month, Rubio’s a nonfactor in the race until New Hampshire.

“This is real. There exists this feeling that Senator Cruz is only the most recent Christian conservative presidential candidate, and that the two individuals who preceded him in the 2008 and 2012 caucuses have not been given the respect that they deserve as voices in the Christian conservative movement,” says Jamie Johnson, a former member of the Iowa GOP state central committee who supported Santorum in 2012 and has not thrown his weight behind a candidate after supporting former Texas governor Rick Perry earlier this cycle.

“It is absolutely clear to me that many Huckabee and Santorum supporters are going to swing toward Marco Rubio, because he is a Christian conservative who they feel embodies more of the character traits that Huckabee and Santorum embody,” Johnson says. “That’s what I’m hearing from both camps.”…

[A]n operative with one conservative campaign says he reached out to Rubio’s team to discuss forging an alliance against Cruz. On the ground at an event in Iowa, the operative says he approached Rubio press secretary Brooke Sammon and told her, “We have a common enemy, and I’m a firm believer that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The Rubio campaign declined to comment on the exchange…

The anti-Cruz effort may not be limited to ad campaigns. Sources familiar with the discussions say there are proposals to pool resources that can be used for voter outreach and education as well. A primary target of such a campaign would be Iowa’s churches, where Cruz’s opponents believe parishioners have been misled about the Texas senator’s record on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Rubio as a second choice for Huckabee and Santorum fans makes more sense than it may seem. Rubio endorsed Huck in 2008. Like Santorum and unlike Cruz, he’s strongly interventionist. His economic pitch isn’t as overtly blue-collar as Huck’s and Santorum’s is but his tax plan was ostentatiously pro-family. Most importantly, Rubio’s political appeal owes less than Cruz’s does to his stature as a voice for evangelicals, which means Rubio as nominee would leave more room for prominent Christian conservatives like Huckabee and Santorum to exert influence. I can buy all of this, right up to the point where Cruz’s record on gay marriage is somehow a major liability but Rubio’s isn’t. The day SCOTUS’s gay marriage ruling came down this summer, Huckabee was vowing civil disobedience. Rubio? He was urging people to respect the law of the land. Ted Cruz reacted to the decision by calling for retention elections for federal judges, to make them more accountable to popular will, and by proposing a constitutional amendment to overturn the Obergefell ruling and return marriage law to the states. Rubio? He said at the time that he opposed an amendment that would do that. (Months later, he told an interviewer that he agreed the states should control marriage.) I can understand disliking Cruz’s federalist approach to marriage if you’re socially conservative even though I don’t agree. I can’t understand strongly preferring Rubio, who seems more passive than Cruz does after adverse court rulings, on that issue. Which makes me think SSM is really just a fig leaf for whatever’s really motivating Cruz critics to prefer Rubio.

Maybe what’s going on here is a simple matter of Huck and Santorum fans trying to get their candidates’ attention. The only way anti-Cruz social conservatives can really make a splash in Iowa for Rubio is by getting Huckabee and Santorum to drop out and endorse him. That might give Ben Carson’s dwindling fan base pause to consider Rubio too, and it would help feed the inevitable media narrative (which has already begun with Trey Gowdy) that big-name Republicans are lining up for Rubio. I don’t think Huckabee or Santorum will quit before the caucuses as a matter of simple pride: They’re both former winners, and Santorum’s victory came after a very late surge in 2012, so they’re probably resolved to hang around to the bitter end and hope some of the old magic returns. This NRO piece may be a vehicle by their supporters to gently ask them to reconsider that. If H&S don’t suspend their campaigns and back Rubio, the almost certain winner in Iowa will be the supposedly fake social conservative Cruz or the actually fake conservative Trump. This is their respective teams’ way of nudging them to do what little they can to help Rubio avert that.

This is actually a glaring example of the asymmetry this year (which Cruz loves to point out) between the conservative and “moderate” lanes. Normally it’s the conservative vote that’s split six ways while one clear-cut moderate champion consolidates his wing of the party. This year it’s Cruz who’s consolidated the conservative vote, leaving too few socially conservative voters between Huckabee, Santorum, and Carson to vault Rubio into second place in Iowa, let alone first, even if he won over every one of their supporters. Meanwhile, it’s the moderates who are bitterly divided between Rubio, Christie, Bush, and Kasich (and Trump, of course). If I were Cruz, after reading this NRO piece I’d dial up a few conservative friends with deep pockets and ask them to pony up a little cash for Christie and Kasich in New Hampshire in the interest of holding down Rubio’s support — assuming Cruz hasn’t done that already. Speaking of which, your exit question: Why is longtime Clinton pal Ron Burkle suddenly contributing to John Kasich’s campaign? Hmmmmmm.