Leaders of the Christian right have found their man: Ted Cruz.
In the past two weeks, the Texas senator has wracked up a string of high-profile endorsements from influential evangelical leaders, including Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown, and Family Leader chief Bob Vander Plaats. According to the National Review, many more are on the way. Dobson, Brown, and Vander Plaats, the conservative magazine reports, are part of an informal coalition of Christian conservative leaders—known internally, albeit not creatively, as “the GROUP”—that quietly formed earlier this year with the specific goal of making sure they were all on the same page when it came time to make endorsements. Following a vote earlier this month that ended with Cruz garnering the support of three-quarters of the group, the next step—which was subsequently confirmed by the Washington Post—is for other members to roll out their own endorsements between now and Super Tuesday for maximal impact. Those who aren’t Cruz fans, meanwhile, have agreed to remain on the sidelines.
The development is a major victory for Cruz, who has made wooing evangelicals a top priority of his campaign. He jumped into the race this spring with a speech at the Jerry Falwell–founded Liberty University and has held a number of “religious liberty”–themed events that doubled as grievance pep rallies for Christian conservatives who believe their faith is under attack from the government. Already, that outreach is paying dividends in the polls, particularly in Iowa, where evangelicals account for roughly half of likely GOP caucus-goers and where Cruz now leads Donald Trump by an average of four points in the most recent state surveys.
The newfound unity among evangelical leaders—assuming it holds—is also major news given that social conservatives have long dreamed of rallying around a single candidate early in the nominating process, yet have been unable to bring their movement’s full weight behind one in recent GOP nomination fights. As the New York Times put it back in March, the group’s search for its own champion was based on two conservative articles of faith: “Republicans did not win the White House in the past two elections because their nominees were too moderate and failed to excite the party’s base. And a conservative alternative failed to win the nomination each time because voters did not unite behind a single champion in the primary fight.”
That general-election argument is dubious—exit polls make clear that evangelicals came around to Mitt Romney in the 2012 general election, for instance—but it’s easy to see why true believers look back over the past two Republican battles and wonder what could have been. Four years ago, the 2012 contest opened with Rick Santorum riding a last-minute endorsement from Vander Plaats to the narrowest of 34-vote victories over Mitt Romney in Iowa. The race was so tight, though, that Romney was initially declared the winner and was the one who left with the momentum. That dynamic would have been noticeably different if evangelical leaders could have convinced a few more of Iowa’s social conservatives to back Santorum, who ended up with the support of only about a third of self-identified evangelicals in GOP caucus entrance polls. Instead, born-again voters also spread their love between Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann, who together accounted for about 30 percent of their vote.* A clear-cut Santorum win in Iowa wouldn’t have derailed Romney’s campaign, but it would have made things much more difficult for the establishment favorite—particularly if it convinced Gingrich to call it quits instead of sticking around for another four months siphoning off social conservative votes, and victories, from Santorum.
The 2008 contest probably haunts the Christian right even more than 2012 does. In that primary, Mike Huckabee won Iowa with the help of a yearlong push from Vander Plaats and his allies, which earned him the support of nearly half of evangelical caucus-goers. Still, his nine-point victory could have been twice that if he wasn’t also competing with the likes of Fred Thompson and Romney (who was then in his conservative phase), who together claimed the support of nearly a third of evangelical Republicans in the state. A more fully unified movement—and a bigger post-Iowa bump for Huckabee—could have also easily changed the outcome in South Carolina, where John McCain edged the evangelical favorite by a scant three points.
Evangelical conservatives, like all electoral demographics, can be a rather amorphous catchall for a group with a number of competing priorities. The impact of endorsements, meanwhile, can be hard to quantify, and it remains to be seen how many self-described evangelicals will actually follow their movement’s leaders this time around, even with most of them on the same page. Still, next year’s nominating calendar couldn’t be set up much better for social conservatives to make a splash. According to University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, 18 nominating contests—and 11 of the first 22—are held in states where white evangelicals account for more than half of GOP primary voters. Add to that Donald Trump’s seemingly invincible campaign and the Republican Party’s general disarray, and there is now a very real opportunity for social conservatives to play kingmaker for the first time in years. If Trump notches an early victory or two—and Marco Rubio or another establishment-friendly hopeful doesn’t—GOP power brokers may have to take whatever non-Trump candidates they can get. If enough evangelicals can rally behind Cruz and give him a fast start, then, next year’s nominating battle could very well end with the establishment begrudgingly accepting the evangelical favorite as opposed to the other way around.
*Correction, Dec. 23, 2015: This post originally misspelled Michele Bachmann’s first name.