Ted Cruz Leads Donald Trump In A National Poll For The First Time, Strongest Support Is With Evangelicals

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who has fairly consistently been battling Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) for second place behind New York City businessman Donald Trump in the race for the 2016 Republican nomination for president, beat Trump in a nationwide poll for the first time shortly before the South Carolina GOP primary. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on February 17, Ted Cruz polls first among the GOP presidential candidates. Cruz polls at 28 percent versus Donald Trump’s 26 percent — a lead which, it should be noted, is within the margin of error.

Ted Cruz achieved a third place finish in Saturday’s South Carolina GOP primary, in which only about a thousand votes separated him from second place finisher Marco Rubio. In announcing the results of the poll to a crowd of South Carolinian supporters, Cruz continued his long-term strategy of positioning himself as a “Washington outsider,” despite the fact that as a United States senator he is, of course, based in Washington, D.C.

“The sound you’re hearing is the sound of screams from Washington, D.C.”

The Ted Cruz campaign naturally hoped to harness some momentum from the inevitable headlines and the inevitable tantrum — and inevitable tweetstorm — from Donald Trump following the release of this poll. As delegates are won state-by-state, and most states are not winner-take-all, the importance of national polls is a controversial subject. Many believe that national polls are completely meaningless because both the presidential primaries and the general election are won on a state-by-state basis. Regardless, in this particular election cycle it has become more apparent than ever that many primary voters choose their candidates at the last minute, so any media-driven or Trump-driven momentum that Ted Cruz can spin to his advantage is likely to be more valuable than the contents of the poll itself.

Ted Cruz may not have managed to win the South Carolina GOP primary, but the demographic that supports him became clear as a bell — The Washington Post reported on Sunday that 8 out of 10 Ted Cruz supporters in South Carolina self-identified as evangelicals. However, instead of cleaning up in the South Carolina primary with the state’s significant evangelical population — as he did to win the GOP Iowa caucus on February 1 — Ted Cruz failed to win as much of the evangelical vote as Donald Trump did. Trump won 33 percent of evangelicals to Cruz’s 27 percent.

Ted Cruz’s strong support with evangelicals looks good on paper, but it has only served to help him win one state-level race, and Iowa has fewer evangelicals than South Carolina. This latest weakness could prove fatal for Ted Cruz, since the vast majority of his support comes from this group — even fifth-place finisher Ohio Governor John Kasich won more non-evangelical voters in South Carolina than Ted Cruz did. Cruz cannot afford to lose as many evangelical voters to Donald Trump as he did in South Carolina because he has not shown that he is able to pull any significant number of voters outside of that demographic.

Ted Cruz attempted to slap down his close competitor Marco Rubio on Jake Tapper’s State of the Union on Sunday by invoking Donald Trump. The Ted Cruz campaign strategy to position Cruz as the anti-Trump was on full display as Cruz tried to explain why he is better suited to that role than Rubio is. He pointed out that, with his Iowa caucus win, he is the only GOP candidate to have beaten Trump in a state-level race thus far, and he also claimed that with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s endorsement, Rubio should have done better. These claims are spurious at best as Ted Cruz did finish a thousand votes behind him in South Carolina, and Marco Rubio polls almost dead even with him in Nevada leading up to the GOP Nevada caucus on February 23. However, the Cruz campaign must do what they can knowing that Ted Cruz faces a very steep uphill battle going into Super Tuesday on March 1, when the Republicans’ choice of nominee is likely to become much clearer.

[Image courtesy of Ethan Miller/Getty Images]