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Marco Rubio speaking at a town hall event in Ottumwa, Iowa, on Monday.
Associated Press/Photo by Mary Altaffer
Marco Rubio speaking at a town hall event in Ottumwa, Iowa, on Monday.

Rubio widens lead in latest WORLD survey

Campaign 2016 | The senator from Florida is the top presidential pick of evangelical insiders for the seventh month in a row

WASHINGTON—Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., widened his lead in WORLD’s latest evangelical insiders survey, breaking 70 percent in combined support for the first time.

The findings are part of a monthly survey of 103 evangelical leaders and influencers, 82 of whom participated in January. The results are not scientific or representative of all evangelicals but offer a glimpse into how a group of influential evangelicals are leaning in the 2016 presidential race.

Rubio trails billionaire businessman Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in national polls, but he came out on top in WORLD’s survey for the seventh month in a row. His combined first- and second-choice support increased from 66 percent last month to 73 percent in January, including 40 out of 82 first-choice votes.

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“Rubio appeals strongly to evangelicals because of his past and present record on issues like abortion and gay marriage, his commitment to making court appointments that will uphold conservative principles in the future, and his sheer electability,” said survey participant Karen Swallow Prior, an author and Liberty University professor.

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Cruz also gained in combined support, edging up from 52 percent last month to 56 percent in January, although his first-choice support dropped slightly. More than three-fourths of all survey participants chose either Rubio or Cruz as their first choice.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has attracted the most money and congressional endorsements but little support in the polls, remained a distant third in WORLD’s survey with 21 percent in combined support. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s once-growing support almost completely evaporated among survey participants this month, with zero first-choice votes and only four second-choice votes.

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Trump, the front-runner in national polls, lagged far behind the leaders in WORLD’s survey again this month, but he almost doubled his overall support since last month—up to a combined 11 percent. Although Trump remains the most disliked Republican candidate in the survey—59 percent say they “absolutely” would not vote for him in the primaries—he has significantly improved from August, when 81 percent said they would not consider him.

“Trump is getting better at his shtick—exploiting anxiety, dropping conservative buzzwords, and playing up his D.C. ‘outsider’ status,” said survey participant Jemar Tisby, president of the Reformed African American Network.

Tisby believes Trump’s modest gains also reflect the growing perception that the real estate mogul could have the best odds to win the general election—a sentiment reflected in WORLD’s survey: 10 percent of respondents said Trump has the best chance to beat the Democratic nominee, up from 2 percent in September, the last time WORLD asked the question.

“I think it’s clear that Trump is making an effort to appear more ‘presidential’ in substance and even more so in style,” Prior said.

Nearly 60 percent of survey respondents believe Rubio has the best chance to win in November, up from 44 percent in September. More than 23 percent believe Cruz has the best odds, good for second place and up from 9 percent in September.

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Domestic religious liberty (63 percent) and abortion (60 percent) continued to top the list of election issue concerns, but national security (38 percent) and Supreme Court nominations (33 percent) continued to rise in importance.

WORLD conducted this month’s survey Jan. 15-19, just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses kick off the 2016 primary voting season.

Survey respondents’ enthusiasm remained high—82 percent are “happy” or “elated” with their favorite candidate—but energy has waned the last two months, as campaigns turn increasingly negative.

Tisby, as a black evangelical, sees no candidate as a home run.

“A host of issues that affect African-Americans daily seem to go unnoticed or even opposed by the Republican candidates,” Tisby said, citing criminal justice reform, public education, and poverty. “Democrats cede too much ideological territory to secular notions of equality. … I feel left out by both sides.”

WORLD’s survey of evangelical leaders and insiders

The complete results from the Jan. 21 survey

1. If the presidential election were today, which declared candidate do you prefer?

Marco Rubio, 48.8%, 40
Ted Cruz, 28.1%, 23
Jeb Bush, 6.1%, 5
Carly Fiorina, 4.9%, 4
Donald Trump, 4.9%, 4
Mike Huckabee, 2.4%, 2
John Kasich, 2.4%, 2
Hillary Clinton, 1.2%, 1
Rand Paul, 1.2%, 1
Ben Carson, 0.0%, 0
Chris Christie, 0.0%, 0
Martin O’Malley, 0.0%, 0
Bernie Sanders, 0.0%, 0
Rick Santorum, 0.0%, 0

Answered: 82 
Skipped: 0

2. On a scale of 1-to-5, how excited are you about this candidate?

1-Disappointed, 0.0%, 0
2-Lukewarm, 8.5%, 7
3-Satisfied, 9.8%, 8
4-Happy, 54.9%, 45
5-Elated, 26.8%, 22
Average response: 4.0

Answered: 82 
Skipped: 0

3. Who is your second choice?

Ted Cruz, 27.5%, 22
Marco Rubio, 23.8%, 19
Jeb Bush, 15.0%, 12
Carly Fiorina, 7.5%, 6
Mike Huckabee, 7.5%, 6
Donald Trump, 6.3%, 5
Ben Carson, 5.0%, 4
John Kasich, 3.8%, 3
Chris Christie, 1.3%, 1
Martin O’Malley, 1.3%, 1
Rand Paul, 1.3%, 1
Hillary Clinton, 0.0%, 0
Bernie Sanders, 0.0%, 0
Rick Santorum, 0.0%, 0

Answered: 80 
Skipped: 2

4. According to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson have separated themselves from the rest of the GOP field. Which of these candidates do you prefer?

Marco Rubio, 63.4%, 52
Ted Cruz, 31.7%, 26
Donald Trump, 4.9%, 4
Ben Carson, 0.0%, 0

Answered: 82 
Skipped: 0

5. Who will you absolutely not vote for in the primaries? (Check as many as apply.)

Bernie Sanders, 87.8%, 72
Hillary Clinton, 86.6%, 71
Martin O’Malley, 81.7%, 67
Donald Trump, 58.5%, 48
John Kasich, 51.2%, 42
Rand Paul, 47.6%, 39
Chris Christie, 39.0%, 32
Ben Carson, 37.8%, 31
Rick Santorum, 35.4%, 29
Jeb Bush, 34.2%, 28
Mike Huckabee, 29.3%, 24
Ted Cruz, 15.9%, 13
Carly Fiorina, 11.0%, 9
Marco Rubio, 8.5%, 7

Answered: 82 
Skipped: 0

6. What are the top three issues you will consider when selecting a candidate? (Please check only three.)

Religious freedom (domestic), 63.4%, 52
Abortion, 59.8%, 49
National security/terrorism, 37.8%, 31
Supreme Court nominations, 32.9%, 27
Economy/jobs, 22.0%, 18
Marriage and family issues, 18.3%, 15
Federal debt/deficit, 14.6%, 12
Foreign policy, 14.6%, 12
Immigration, 14.6%, 12
Education, 3.7%, 3
Race relations, 3.7%, 3
Environment/pollution, 2.4%, 2
Healthcare/Affordable Care Act, 2.4%, 2
Poverty, 2.4%, 2
Religious freedom (international), 2.4%, 2
Crime, 1.2%, 1
Taxes, 0.0%, 0

Answered: 82 
Skipped: 0

7. Which GOP candidate has the best opportunity to defeat the Democratic nominee in 2016?

Marco Rubio, 59.3%, 48
Ted Cruz, 23.5%, 19
Donald Trump, 9.9%, 8
Jeb Bush, 3.7%, 3
Carly Fiorina, 2.5%, 2
John Kasich, 1.2%, 1
Ben Carson, 0.0%, 0
Chris Christie, 0.0%, 0
Mike Huckabee, 0.0%, 0
Rand Paul, 0.0%, 0
Rick Santorum, 0.0%, 0

Answered: 81 
Skipped: 1

J.C. Derrick
J.C. Derrick

J.C. is WORLD Magazine's Washington Bureau chief. He spent 10 years covering sports, higher education, and politics for the Longview News-Journal and other newspapers in Texas before joining WORLD in 2012. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.

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