It's easy to forget, but in the days leading up to the Iowa Caucuses, Ted Cruz, the man who would win them, looked like a candidate on the verge of drowning. The final pre-caucus Des Moines Register poll showed him trailing, once again, to Donald Trump. Other Republicans had turned their fire on Cruz, accusing the Texas senator of being a phony conservative and a generally unbearable human to be around. Trump, who used to call Cruz a "friend," had started referring to him as "the Canadian anchor baby." Nationally, the Texas Senator's approval rating had fallen by 16 points among Republicans.
Oh, and there was the matter of the deceptively official-looking mailers marked "VOTING VIOLATION," that scored voters and their neighbors in an attempt to shame Iowans into turning out for Monday's caucus. Cruz admitted his campaign was behind them, and seemed defiantly proud: "I apologize to nobody for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote," he told reporters in Sioux City two days before the caucuses.
As frustrating as it is for his many, many detractors, Cruz was right to be confident. He won Iowa with 27 percent of the vote to Trump's 24 percent, turning the real estate mogul self-proclaimed winner into a loser. How he did so is no secret: He earned the trust of Iowa's evangelical voters, who flooded the caucuses in record numbers, ultimately comprising about 64 percent of the GOP electorate, according to entrance polls. Cruz took the biggest chunk of that voting bloc, winning 34 percent of self-identified "born-again Christians," as well as four in ten voters who identified themselves as "very conservative."
Cruz had been pitching these devout Christians ever since he started making trips to Iowa two years ago, and in the days just before the caucuses he intensified his efforts, stopping in middle school auditoriums, rural Baptist churches, small-town plastics factories —anywhere with room for people to sit, Cruz would stand and deliver his message: I'm one of you, a true conservative.
The Saturday before the caucuses I watched about 100 supporters crammed into the lone eating establishment in the tiny of Hamlin for a Cruz "retail event," listening raptly as Iowa's Bob Vander Plaats, a social conservative kingmaker who has called gay marriage a "Satanic plot," told a story about meeting with an advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who upon hearing that the faith leader was from Iowa, instructed him and his state to "choose well." Choosing well, Vander Plaats explained, via a reference to Exodus, meant choosing Ted Cruz.
"I believe this is a man who fears God," he affirmed. "He knows who he is and who he serves.
Cruz followed with his standard stump speech, an explicitly religious piece of rhetoric mixing free-market conservatism and talk radio soundbites with end times eschatology and calls for the country to return to its "Judeo-Christian roots." The speech ended as it always does, by asking the audience to pray for God to "Awaken the body of Christ that we might pull back from the abyss," and quoting from Chronicles: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."
The lineup was the same a couple of hours later and a little further north, at a community center in Ida Grove, a town known for its assortment of cartoonish castle buildings. It was the same on Sunday as well, as Cruz made his way through the remainder of Iowa's 99 counties. Sometimes Congressman Steve King—a popular Iowa Republican who thinks the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling means people can marry lawnmowers and who has volunteered to help Cruz build a Mexican border wall—subbed in for Vander Plaats, wielding a spoon to demonstrate that Cruz would be "spoon-feeding a little bit of Leviticus to the leftists," whatever that might mean.
As political commentators have pointed out, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, the winners of the past two Republican Iowa Caucuses, had similar support from the Christian Right, only to falter when the race moved on to states with more moderate, and less devout, electorates. And they've predicted Cruz will face a similar outcome, noting that he hasn't changed his stump speech since arriving in New Hampshire, a state that lacks a sizable bloc of evangelical voters.
What these arguments fail to take into account, though, is that Cruz is very, very good at this. Scarily, almost suspiciously, good. His sweeping, apocalyptic oratory, down to the hand motions he seems to have committed to muscle memory, leave little doubt in the minds of evangelical voters that Cruz is one of their own. Then there's the Cruz campaign's expansive, data-driven efforts to mobilize the GOP's base. And those shady mailers Trump is still complaining about hint at a Nixon-like ruthlessness not typically seen in Biblically-based presidential campaigns.
Other evangelical favorites running against Cruz have understandably taken issue with these tactics. Carson, in particular, has been scathing in his criticism of Cruz, accusing his rival's campaign of trying to sabotage his chances in Iowa by tweeting that the former pediatric neurosurgeon was dropping out of the race. Huckabee, who won the Iowa Caucus in 2008 but pulled out of this year's race before the results were in Monday, spent the final days of his campaign accusing Cruz of misleading voters about his faith. And on Thursday, Santorum, the 2012 Iowa caucus winner, threw his support behind Rubio, apparently for no other reason than the fact that the Florida Senator isn't Ted Cruz.
Still, the rest of the Christian right seems to be standing solidly behind Cruz. This is somewhat unusual: For years, conservative evangelicals have struggled to unite over presidential candidates, ultimately settling for true believers who lacked the political experience and campaign organization to actually make an impact in a national race. At the same time, the Christian right has watched its culture war victories—gay marriage bans, abortion restrictions, the Tea Party wave of 2010—dissipate, overturned on legal technicalities, or squandered by poor leadership. In 2016, these voters aren't looking for another naively affable Bible-thumper—they want someone who can win.
In Cruz, it seems, they have found their man. Leaders of the Religious right have lined up to back his campaign, joined by an assortment of conservative infotainment celebrities. In the final days of the Iowa campaign, Cruz was flanked by members of this posse, lining them up to give their full-throated support to his candidacy at rallies and town halls across the state.
At a rally following his press conference in Sioux City Monday night, a parade of Cruz's endorsers took the stage, putting the weight of their ideological zealotry behind his White House bid. There was Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, and Heidi Cruz, the candidate's wife, casually decked out in stay-at-home jeans and determined to show her husband's softer side. A slideshow showcased Cruz's endorsements from Iowa conservatives: pro-life leaders, Ron Paul fans, Christian homeschool activists.
A little later, Phil Robertson, the embattled patriarch of Duck Dynasty who endorsed Cruz last month as "one of us," took the stage, inviting the crowd to blow their complementary duck calls in unison to entice Donald Trump into a one-on-one debate with Cruz, and then regaling with a speech that moved from duck hunting, to abortion, to what happens to "burned-out hippies" ("they become Bernie Sanders!"). Not to be upstaged, Glenn Beck followed with a 25-minute sermon that was mostly about George Washington, and a little bit about Ted Cruz, and ended with a show-and-tell of what Beck claimed was Washington's copy of Don Quixote—a book about a man who refuses to engage with reality.
"I'm here to tell you that we do not make it unless we get serious right now, we don't make it," Beck concluded. "But I'm here to tell you that I am filled with hope because I've seen you. I've looked you in the eyes all across the state… You know what time it is. You know it's over if we don't do the right thing."
To the average liberal listener, none of this would make any sense. But to voters in Sioux City, and in Ames, and in red states across the US, the message was perfectly clear: The country is at the edge of a gaping abyss, teeming with secularism and Obamacare and ISIS and politically correct liberals, and Cruz is the guy who can lead righteous Americans to the other side. The only question is, are there enough of them to lift Cruz up to the next level?
Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter.