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Key to the primary

Evangelicals could hold cards by Harold F. Bass and Mark J. Rozell Special to the Democrat-Gazette | February 26, 2016 at 1:57 a.m.

As the Republican presidential nomination campaign remains unsettled, Arkansas now looms large this year among the March 1 Super Tuesday contests.

There's a reason that front-runner Donald Trump held a large rally in the state long before heading to South Carolina. The GOP race in the state is shaping up to be one of the most competitive right now.

Trying to make sense of the GOP electorate this year has proven beyond the predictive skills of leading political observers. One reason is Trump's unexpected strong appeal among religious conservative voters--a core constituency of the Republican electorate in the SEC states and a key to his possible nomination.

The Manhattan playboy's image doesn't look like that of a typical religious conservative-backed candidate, yet he is doing very well among white evangelicals.

The latest poll of the state's GOP voters shows several candidates with religious-conservative appeal all bunched up. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump are effectively in a statistical tie (all within the margin of error) and the other favorite of evangelicals, Ben Carson, is fading. John Kasich barely registered in the poll. It is reasonable to project a three-person GOP contest in the state with Carson and Kasich merely playing potential spoilers.

Arkansas has long been a bastion of politically active religious conservatives, commonly labeled the Christian Right. The large percentage of white evangelicals in the state makes that constituency a powerful force in determining the winner of this year's GOP primary. The key question is: Which of the leading candidates will most effectively make the sale to evangelicals?

Furthermore, in this open primary state, how will the apparently noncompetitive status of the Democratic primary--Hillary Clinton holds a very big lead over Bernie Sanders--affect turnout in the GOP contest?

It is conceivable that independent and some Democratic-identifying voters will take part in the competitive GOP contest, adding another complicating factor in trying to project the outcome.

With those challenges in mind, here is an admittedly risky projection of how Arkansas plays out this year for the GOP. With favorite son and former governor Mike Huckabee now out of the race and therefore no standard-bearer, the white evangelical vote is split among the three leading candidates--Cruz, Rubio and Trump.

With merely a significant-sized minority of the white evangelical vote, Trump emerges with the biggest advantage, given that he among this group of candidates has the most crossover appeal to independent and some Democratic-leaning voters.

Therefore, it's not necessary to win the white evangelical vote in Arkansas this year to win the GOP primary. It's enough to merely have a respectable showing among those voters, tied to support from other groups. In that respect, the landscape here looks good for Trump. Can anyone stop him?

Cruz counts on his status as the "real deal" religious conservative in the race to boost him above Trump, but his message is being lost in a flurry of back-and-forth accusations between the two leading GOP candidates. Rubio counts on the very large number of endorsements he has received from Arkansas GOP public officials, as well as out-of-state leaders such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, but this year the voters seem especially immune to persuasion by the political "insiders."

Predicting what voters will do is always tricky business. But as things currently stand, unless evangelicals suddenly abandon him, it will be a tall order to take down Trump in the Arkansas GOP primary.


Harold F. Bass is professor of political science at Ouachita Baptist University. Mark J. Rozell is acting dean of the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University. His latest book is The New Politics of the Old South.

Editorial on 02/26/2016

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