Someone had to be the first to jump into the 2016 presidential race, and it seems only fitting that that someone was US Senator Ted Cruz, leapfrogging over his likely opponents to launch his campaign early with a Jesus-soaked speech at the world's largest fundamentalist college. Cruz is a long shot for the GOP nomination, partly because he lacks experience, and mostly because no one likes him. But tucked into his speech Monday, in between stories about sin and redemption and abolishing the IRS, Cruz offered one reason he actually thinks he can win.
"Today, roughly half of born again Christians aren't voting. They're staying home," he told students, who were forced to attend the event or else face fines. "Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values."
The fear that born-again Christians aren't voting enough in US elections is not new. Conservatives have fretted over the idea since at least 2008, often citing it as an explanation for Barack Obama's two wins. White evangelicals have been a potent Republican voting bloc since the late 1970s, when Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell mobilized fundamentalist Christians to enter public life under the leadership of his Moral Majority. The relationship reached its peak just over a decade ago when Christians delivered a resounding re-election victory for George W. Bush. Since then, evangelical influence has waned, and activists claim conservative Christians are now opting out of politics altogether, frustrated by the GOP's shift away from social issues.
With his speech Monday, delivered from the cradle of Falwell Fundamentalism, Cruz cast himself as the candidate who could reverse this trend. He dangled deeply conservative views not just on free markets and Obamacare, but also on the regulation of sexual morality and zealous, unconditional support for Israel.
"Ted Cruz has decided he's going to run on his faith—I think it's terrific," said David Lane, an evangelical operative whose organization, the American Renewal Project, is focused on getting pastors to engage in politics. "The issue is going to be that half of evangelicals in this country aren't registered to vote. Republicans have been bleeding evangelical voters." To address this, Lane said, his organization is working to get 1,000 pastors to run for office in 2016.
"It's time to decide if we are a pagan nation, or if we're going to get on with it. Ted Cruz decided to get on with it," he added. "Now it's up to the 65 million evangelicals living in America if we are going to restore America to a Biblically-based culture."
Cruz's campaign plan seems to rely on what he perceives as a singular ability to turn out these hidden Bible-thumpers, inspiring a "grassroots army" of born-again Christians in megachurches and Bible colleges and Appalachian revival tents to vote for him next year.
"God's blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation and I believe God isn't done with America yet," he exhorted the audience Monday. "I believe in you. I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to reignite the promise of America."
The question, of course, is whether turning out disenfranchised Christians can really make Cruz a viable candidate—and whether these voters will even like him in the first place.
On the one hand, Cruz is clearly overstating the evangelical turnout problem.
"Evangelicals don't turnout enough to the extent that any group with a politician who wants their vote doesn't turn out to vote enough," said Jason Husser, assistant director of the Elon University Poll. "It's true that they don't turn out to vote that well, to the extent that most people in this country don't turn out to vote that well." In fact, among white evangelicals, turnout is usually fairly consistent, and higher than it is among the general population.
What Cruz is asking for, Husser said, "is exceptional turnout," the idea being to boost the evangelical share of the vote in the same way that Obama's campaigns did that of young people and minorities. But, Husser pointed out, this is not an implausible goal. "There is room for advancement," he said. "There are a few scenarios where you can see evangelicals" really flocking to a candidate who appeals to their religious mores, he suggested, such as the upcoming Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, or a perceived threat to Israel's security. And as Bloomberg Politics points out, more than a quarter of Americans identify as evangelical Protestants, according to Pew Research, so even a one-point shift in turnout could swing a state.
That doesn't mean Cruz's plan will work. The Texas Senator is currently trailing far behind in polls, with only about 3 percent support in the first primary states. In what's likely to be a crowded GOP presidential field, he's not the only candidate who can appeal to Christians—Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, and Bobby Jindal can all push the same buttons, and without the messianic narcissism of an Ivy League debater-turned-televangelist.
There's also the possibility that the born-again coalition Cruz is counting on for votes no longer exists. Without powerful leaders like Falwell, the evangelical bloc has splintered, perhaps irreparably. Young evangelicals in particular have shifted their priorities, turning away from the sexual culture wars that defined the Christian Right . And like pretty much everyone else in America, born-again Christians are just generally bored with politics.
"There was a Bible Belt illusion of a Christian America that never existed," the Southern Baptist Convention's Russell Moore told reporters last spring. "We will continue contending for the culture ... but certainly not contending for electoral politics as the end goal."