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Will Cruz's Religious Tone Resonate With New Hampshire Voters?

Taylor Dobbs
Sen. Ted Cruz at a campaign event in Raymond, New Hampshire Monday. It remains to be seen how Cruz's religious message will play with New Hampshire voters.

With less than 24 hours until the New Hampshire primary, presidential candidates are ramping up their public appearances, trying to get last-minute face time with voters.

While Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses on the Republican side, he’s polling behind Donald Trump in New Hampshire. But it’s not clear how his religious campaign style will resonate with Granite State voters.

At the Tuckaway Tavernin Raymond, New Hampshire, about 50 Cruz supporters crowded into an event space at the back of the bustling restaurant and butcher shop. At least a hundred more stand outside the room, hoping to hear the candidate speak.

The event began with local Republicans leading the crowd in the pledge of allegiance.

For Cruz’s part, he pledged to reform the economy for much the speech. He said he plans to enact a ‘flat tax’ of 10 percent, and to eliminate the IRS.

When Cruz did mention religion, two protesters holding cardboard crosses staged a faux-exorcism, which got a reaction out of the crowd. After the two were ejected from the restaurant’s back door, Cruz turned back to the crowd.

“Lefties don’t usually believe in God,” he joked.

Dan Hosick does believe in God. He’s among a group of his classmates from Raymond High School sitting near the back of the room. They made it to the rally after heavy snow scored the students an early dismissal from school.

He’s 18, and he's taking a political science class this year. Even though his parents are supporting Marco Rubio, Hosick has decided on Ted Cruz.

Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR
Dan Hosick, 18, seen on the left at a Ted Cruz event in Raymond, New Hampshire Monday. Hosick says he's supporting Cruz and doesn't focus on his religious message.

Hosick came to the rally, Ted Cruz sign in hand, wearing a gray Army T-shirt, jeans and boots. A silver cross dangles around his neck, but he says his Catholic faith isn’t his primary concern when it comes to politics.

“Well [Cruz’s] religious views, they don’t really bother me too much. Whatever he wants to do, that’s him. That’s not really what I’m trying to focus on,” said Hosick “I agree with him, but I don’t really think it’s super crucial to this campaign.”

"Lefties don't usually believe in God." — Ted Cruz joked during a campaign event in Raymond, New Hampshire Monday

He’s not the only one. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, New Hampshire is the least religious state in the nation. 

While Ted Cruz is known for quoting scripture and appealing to social conservatism, it’s not yet clear how New Hampshire voters will react to Cruz’s religious messages on primary day.

Dr. Randall Balmer is the chair of the department of religion at Dartmouth College. He says he doesn’t expect religion to weigh heavily on the minds of voters Tuesday.

“I think religion will not play a huge role in the New Hampshire Primary,” said Balmer. “I think that the population of evangelicals or those who would identify with the religious right is probably not significant enough to sway the election one way or the other.”

At a different Cruz rally last week in Henniker, New Hampshire, Jessica Place noted that she's agnostic. She was curious about Cruz, but noticed a theme in his victory speech after winning the Iowa caucuses.

"He made a lot of comments about 'God bless us all,' et cetera. I want to see if he has the same approach in New Hampshire." — Jessica Place

“He made a lot of comments about ‘God bless us all,’ et cetera. I want to see if he has the same approach in New Hampshire,” said Place.

Back in Raymond, Cruz brought up Ronald Reagan as much as he did the teachings of Jesus Christ. He compared President Obama to Jimmy Carter, and quoted the Bible verse from the page where Reagan placed his hand during his inauguration.

Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR
A collection of buttons for sale at a Ted Cruz campaign event in Raymond, New Hampshire Monday.

But Dartmouth's Randall Balmer says that in his view, the most religious candidate in the 2016 presidential race might be the one who speaks about religion the least.

“My sense in surveying the presidential scene in 2016 is that Bernie Sanders is arguably the most religious candidate running for president,” said Balmer. “What I mean by that is, that he brings to the campaign trail both the passion and the conviction that reminds me very much of the Hebrew prophets in the Hebrew bible, or the Old Testament.”

As for Cruz, he ended his prepared remarks in Raymond, New Hampshire by asking the crowd to do one last thing for their country: pray.

VPR’s coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
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