Donald Trump’s efforts to win over the evangelical community got a major boost Tuesday when Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed the Republican billionaire for president. In a statement given to the Washington Post, the son of the late, famed televangelist hailed Trump as a “successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”
The endorsement doesn’t come as a complete shock—Falwell had previously lavished praised on Trump—but it nonetheless is a significant development in the Republican race in Iowa, where Trump and Ted Cruz continue to run neck and neck with six days to go and where white evangelicals have accounted for roughly half of GOP caucusgoers in recent contests.
Falwell’s blessing of Trump—paired with his recent (rhyming) endorsement from Sarah Palin, who remains bizarrely popular with the Christian right—could erase any doubts Iowa evangelicals may have about voting for the New York businessman, who recently stumbled when trying to quote from the Bible and who once had this to say about his relationship with God in front of an auditorium full of evangelicals: “When we go in church and I drink the little wine … and I eat the little cracker—I guess that’s a form of asking forgiveness.”
The impact of Falwell’s endorsement may also last well beyond next week. According to University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, a total of 18 nominating contests—and 11 of the first 22—are held in states where white evangelicals account for more than half of Republican primary voters.
Falwell’s announcement is not just a boon to Trump—it’s a huge blow to Cruz, who has long banked on riding evangelical support to an opening victory in Iowa and who launched his campaign last spring with a speech at Falwell’s Liberty University. Ouch. Cruz’s Christian outreach appeared to pay off in spades last month when he received a string of high-profile endorsements from an informal coalition of evangelical leaders who spent last year trying to reach a consensus on which Republican to back in the primary race. Falwell had reportedly taken part in those discussions—in the end, though, he decided to go his own way after they opted to back Cruz.
Evangelical conservatives, like all electoral demographics, can be a rather amorphous group with a number of competing priorities, and Falwell definitely doesn’t speak for all of them. Still, his decision to back Trump puts him more in line with evangelical voters than his Cruz-supporting peers. An NBC News/Survey Monkey tracking poll released Monday morning, for instance, showed Trump with nearly twice the support from white evangelical conservatives nationally that Cruz has, 37 percent to 20 percent. And that survey was taken almost entirely before Trump attended church in Iowa this past Sunday, an experience he summed up like so, "Just got back from church and it was good, it was really good."