WASHINGTON—Good news for Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Carly Fiorina. Mixed news for Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. Bad news for Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson. And if anyone thought Donald Trump or Chris Christie were picking up support from evangelical leaders, pop that bubble.
Those are the findings from a survey of nearly 100 evangelical leaders and insiders. Numerous 2016 GOP candidates have identified evangelicals as a key part of their road to the White House, so WORLD, the leading evangelical news magazine, recently asked 103 evangelical leaders and insiders to see whom they prefer. Ninety-four responded.
Each month, WORLD will sample this mix and reveal results that are not scientific or representative of all evangelicals, but offer a snapshot of how well-connected evangelical insiders are leaning—and it looks like they are looking for a winner rather than someone identified as one of them.
WORLD’s first snapshot shows 39 percent of respondents naming Rubio as either their first or second choice. Bush ranked second as the first or second option for 32 percent of respondents. Walker came in third at 28 percent. But when asked to choose their favorite from among the top four GOP candidates in current polls (Trump, Bush, Walker, and Rubio) Rubio at 40 percent and Walker at 33 percent were the clear leaders.
Bush received 23 percent in that frontrunner match-up, but 26 percent of evangelical insiders said they would “absolutely” not vote for him in primaries. Trump, who has claimed to have evangelical support, received only 4 percent of those votes, and 75 percent said they absolutely would not vote for him in primaries. Very few respondents said they wouldn’t consider voting for Rubio (8 percent) or Walker (9 percent).
Given the sensitive positions of some participants, WORLD has agreed not to name them, but will quote some in monthly stories.
“Trump’s rhetoric and abrasive personality serves to exacerbate the liberal media’s depiction of the white, angry, male conservative spokesperson,” said survey participant Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Christie, who received only one first- or second-place vote, also induced a strong negative reaction from 62 percent of the participants.
Among candidates outside the top four in current polls, Cruz made a strong showing as the first or second choice of 25 percent of participants, but 20 percent said they would absolutely not vote for him in primaries. Fiorina, little-known several months ago, was the first choice of 10 percent and the second choice of an additional 7 percent, while 15 percent disdained her. John Kasich was the first or second choice of 5 percent, but 35 percent said they would not vote for him in primaries. Rand Paul had 3 percent support and 44 percent negatives.
The survey also suggests Huckabee, with four first-choice votes, and Santorum and Carson, each with zero, are not gaining significant support from evangelical leaders, although Huckabee did so in 2008 and Santorum in 2012. Respondents felt Huckabee (24 percent) has done the best job of evangelical outreach, and smaller numbers praised the outreach efforts of Cruz and Bush.
When asked “What are the top three issues you will consider when selecting a candidate,” 69 percent cited domestic religious freedom and 56 percent abortion. Foreign policy came in third at 27 percent and Supreme Court nominations at 25 percent. Only 14 percent chose immigration and only 3 percent cited Healthcare/Affordable Care Act.
Participant George Barna, a leading researcher and executive director of the American Culture and Faith Institute, said it’s not surprising domestic religious freedom topped the list of evangelical concerns.
“Religious liberty continually emerges in all of my national research as one of the top issues that concern Christian conservatives,” he said. “Many … believe that if religious liberty is reduced or even eliminated, potentially all other freedoms will be destroyed as well.”