Cruz wins Values Voter Summit straw poll for third straight year

Greg Nash

Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump enters new debate frontier Pence offers Cruz 'heartfelt thanks' for Trump endorsement Cruz: Trump hasn't apologized for personal insults MORE won the Values Voter Summit straw poll for the third year in a row on Saturday, a strong showing of support from evangelical voters for his 2016 presidential bid.

The firebrand Texas senator won a whopping 35 percent in the poll of summit-goers, ahead of runner-up Ben Carson’s 18 percent. That margin is significantly wider than last year, where he edged out Carson by just 5 percentage points.

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Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.) took third with 14 percent, followed by Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) with 13 percent. Real estate magnate Donald Trump finished a distant fifth with 5 percent.

Carson won the event’s poll for vice president, his second consecutive win for that category. 

Family Research Council Action president Tony Perkins announced the results Saturday afternoon to applause from the conference’s attendees. Perkins’ group organized the three-day event.

Eight GOP presidential candidates took to the summit stage in order to make their case to the religious conservative audience—Cruz, Carson, Trump, Rubio, Huckabee, as well as Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), and Gov. Bobby Jindal (La.).

The results confirm Cruz, Carson and Huckabee's strength among religious conservative voters. Each rely on the voting bloc as a core piece of their electorate, but the huge win for Cruz is likely encouraging considering recent polls showing the senator outside of the top tier with evangelicals.

But the figures are surprising for both Rubio and Trump. Rubio's finish shows him continuing to make gains with religious conservative voters as he rises in national polling. But the result is a disappointment for Trump, who had led with evangelicals in two recent polls. 

The Values Voter Summit though is Cruz country and several conference-goers mentioned his name first as the person they trust most on issues important to social conservatives when interviewed by The Hill during the event.

William Temple, a 65-year-old pastor from Brunswick, Ga., attended the conference dressed as Button Gwinnett, a Georgia signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Describing himself as a leader of the Tea Party’s 2009 “March on Washington,” Temple wore a black Tricorn hat and held a yellow Revolutionary flag embellished with the motto “Don’t Tread On Me.” He said that the signatures printed on his flag were collected at past events from “Tea Party heroes” including Ted Cruz, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann.

Cruz is Temple’s favorite for the 2016 presidential race because the Texas senator is “right on every Constitutional issue.” Temple said of all the Republican candidates Cruz was “in the best place with evangelicals.”

Matt Schlapp, the president of the American Conservative Union, told The Hill on Friday before the straw poll that he wouldn't be surprised if Cruz won, praising his performance. 

"Sen. Cruz continues to just understand these audiences. He connects well with these primary voters and he really doesn't misstep," he said. 

"Every time I see him address these audiences across the country, he's very surefooted and I think he's just going to gain in popularity with these voters." 

A number of other candidates received strong marks from conference goers, including Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Social conservatives said they trust Jindal and Santorum, but none of the latter three are gaining traction in the GOP presidential race.

Ben Carson received warm support, but many still are not familiar with the retired neurosurgeon say it’s yet to be seen whether he will be as strong on social issues as Cruz or Huckabee.

While recent polls have shown Donald Trump leading with evangelical voters as well as across the board, he placed well outside of the top-tier. Trump gave an extremely well-attended speech on Friday, but some conference-goers mocked him for seeking to appeal to the Christian base by bringing the Bible that he said his mother gave him as a child. 

“That was offensive,” said Todd Dexter, a fundraiser for nonprofit groups in Texas. “Have you opened it? That’s what everyone around me was asking."

Dexter though praised Cruz. "He didn’t all of a sudden become conservative just because he’s running for office.”

A handful of candidates didn't attend the summit—Jeb Bush, Govs. Chris Christie (N.J.), John Kasich (Ohio) and Carly Fiorina.

Bush, seen initially as one of the party's favorites for the nomination, received just seven votes in the straw poll.  

"It would help him if he would actually show up and talk to values voters," Perkins said during a press conference after the event.

Christie and Graham did worse than Bush, both were tied with four votes.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) the progressive senator running for the Democratic nomination, received five votes.

This story was updated at 4:20 p.m.