Inside the South Carolina Exit Poll: A Closer Look at Donald Trump's Win With Evangelical Voters

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up during a South Carolina Republican primary night event in Spartanburg, S.C., Feb. 20, 2016. PlayPaul Sancya/AP Photo
WATCH Donald Trump Wins Big in the South Carolina Primary

There were two big surprises on Saturday: Bernie Sanders won the Hispanic vote in the Nevada Democratic caucuses and evangelicals threw their support behind Donald Trump in the South Carolina primary.

Evangelicals in the "first in the South" primary voted 33-27-22 percent, Trump-Ted Cruz-Marco Rubio. That’s surprising because Cruz beat Trump by a dozen points (and Rubio by 13) among evangelicals in Iowa, 34-22-21 percent. (The comparatively few evangelicals in New Hampshire voted 27-23 percent, Trump-Cruz, but we might think of New Hampshire evangelicals as a somewhat different breed.)

Evangelicals were thick on the ground in South Carolina, accounting for 72 percent of voters, up from 65 percent in 2012. A group that big is going to have a range of political interests. Consider that fewer than half of evangelicals -- 44 percent -- in South Carolina identified themselves as “very” conservative. They were Cruz voters; very conservative evangelicals voted 40-28-17 percent, Cruz-Trump-Rubio.

But not-very-conservative evangelicals looked quite different; they voted 37-25-16 percent, Trump-Rubio-Cruz. That is, Cruz first among very conservative evangelicals. Cruz third, Trump first, among their not-as-conservative brethren. And the latter group was the larger one.

We see a similar result looking at evangelicals who said they care a great deal that a candidate shares their religious beliefs – 54 percent of all evangelicals, they voted 35-27-19 percent, Cruz-Trump-Rubio. Among evangelicals who were less focused on a candidate who shares their religious beliefs, the vote was 41-24-17 percent, Trump-Rubio-Cruz. Same deal: Cruz first among evangelicals focused on shared religious beliefs; Cruz last, and Trump first, among all other evangelicals.

Evangelicals in Iowa were slightly more conservative than in South Carolina – 49 percent identified themselves as very conservative vs. 44 percent, as noted, in South Carolina – and their voting pattern was very similar: Very conservative evangelicals in Iowa voted 46-20-15 percent, Cruz-Trump-Rubio. The distinction from South Carolina is that not-very-conservative evangelicals in Iowa were more dispersed in their vote preferences, 28-23-22 percent, Rubio-Trump-Cruz.

These differences shouldn't be shocking. The religious conservative Rick Santorum won 34 percent of evangelicals across all Republican primaries for which we have exit polls in 2012 - but Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was right alongside him, with 31 percent (and Newt Gingrich not far behind).

The conclusion here is that when it comes to intra-party contests, evangelicals (like many groups) are not as politically cohesive as we might assume. That's a challenge for Cruz in the contests ahead – and it's good news for the man of the season so far, Donald Trump.