Via the Brody File, here’s why Trump is trumpeting today’s endorsement from Jerry Falwell Jr. Cruz’s home-stretch strategy in Iowa is a microcosm of his strategy for the general election: He’s convinced that there are enough evangelicals out there to carry him to victory if only he can get enough of them to turn out. As a theory of how to win in November, that’s highly dubious; as a theory of how to win a Republican primary in Iowa, it’s solid, although it’s being tested this year by Trump’s coalition of populists, nationalists, and, er, evangelicals:
Donald Trump’s outreach to Christians is bearing fruit, if results of the NBC News/Survey Monkey weekly online tracking poll out Tuesday are any indication.
Among white evangelical Republican voters nationally, Trump earned the support of 37 percent, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father is a pastor and has played a key role in recruiting faith leaders to support his son, is at 20 percent. In the same survey conducted the previous week, Cruz registered 9 percentage points higher. Below the top two contenders, Ben Carson earned 11 percent among evangelicals, and Marco Rubio took 10 percent.
That’s a national poll, but if Cruz slips among evangelicals in Iowa too he’s all but finished. That’s why he’s showing off his Christian credentials this week, first in the video below of what he said to pastors in Iowa and second (in the other clip below) in an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network in which he alludes to Trump’s, ahem, “messiah complex.” No coincidence either that Cruz just started airing an ad focusing on Trump’s prior support for partial-birth abortion. As he said on the stump this week, “If you have a candidate for 60 years of his life has supported partial birth abortion, we should not be surprised if as president, that candidate would not defend that right to life.” Simple message: Stopping Trump before he wins Iowa and builds up the momentum he needs to win the nomination is a moral obligation.
Trump, of course, is looking to counter that, first by rolling out Falwell and now by taking shots at Cruz’s most influential evangelical supporter, Bob Vander Plaats:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 26, 2016
Trump also has Huckabee and Santorum taking occasional potshots at Cruz’s authenticity in Iowa out of spite, because he’s eating their lunch among evangelical voters this time. So, who’s winning? Well, there’s a poll out today from Iowa State University showing Cruz back in front by seven points, but no one else has numbers remotely like that so it’s not worth dwelling on. (The poll, implausibly, has Trump below 20.) More revealing is the fact that Team Cruz has begun to scale back expectations in Iowa, insisting that finishing second would show a lot of “grit” and moxie or whatever:
Although Cruz is campaigning aggressively, his advisers are concerned about the barrage and are now scrambling to reset expectations for him here. They insisted Monday that the senator from Texas always has been the “underdog” in Iowa and argued that a second-place finish to Donald Trump should be interpreted as a mark of grit and would catapult him onward in the nominating contest…
Still, a loss in Iowa — the state where Cruz has campaigned the most and where the GOP’s deeply conservative base seems a natural fit — would call into question the depth of his coalition. Also at stake is the credibility of his vaunted data and field operation, which in Iowa is believed to be more sophisticated than any other Republican’s…
“There are a lot of forces aligned against us,” Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler said. “We have never said we expected to win Iowa. We would of course be grateful if we did, and it would be a real boost to our campaign, but again, we’re the underdog in the race.”
One of the forces aligned against them is establishment Republicans’ preference for Trump — short-term, until Cruz is vanquished and a center-right hero supposedly emerges from New Hampshire to do battle with Trump and make the Republican Party safe for the political class again. Some think they’re doing that on Rubio’s behalf, although in that case it’s strange that few of them have endorsed Rubio so far. Others think they’re doing it on Jeb’s behalf, although you’d have to be especially tone-deaf to still think Jeb Bush is capable of winning this race. Whatever the answer, the establishment game here is astonishingly reckless and cynical, that it’s worth risking a Trump victory in Iowa in the interest of defeating Cruz even though that victory could propel Trump to run the table in New Hampshire and beyond and essentially lock up the nomination by March 15th. Notwithstanding my dislike for Trump, if that’s what they’re up to then they deserve him as nominee. If they care more about sinking a bona fide yet disagreeable conservative in Cruz than preventing a Trump takeover of the GOP then that takeover is richly warranted. Anti-Trumpers should consider that their consolation prize on Monday night if things don’t go well in Iowa: The best-laid plans of the GOP brain trust are going to end with Trump kicking the sh*t out of Jeb Bush or John Kasich head to head over the next few months. Although, of course, they’ll have the last laugh when President Trump turns into a perfectly agreeable centrist Republican himself and brokers all sorts of classy deals with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
Exit question: Did Trump’s attack on Cruz’s eligibility do more damage than everyone thinks? Polls show that it seems to matter only to 15 percent or so of Iowans, but that’s no small number in a race that’s close. I theorized yesterday based on the poll trends that the eligibility thing may have driven Cruz down at the start of the month. Other political writers are coming around to the same conclusion.