It may come as no surprise that GOP front runner Donald Trump scored an endorsement from Jerry Falwell Jr., the Evangelical leader of Liberty University on Tuesday.
Trump hinted at a “big endorsement” announcement as he made his rounds on TV morning shows earlier in the day.
“It is truly an honor to receive Jerry’s endorsement. Not only is he a high quality person, with a wonderful family, whom I have great respect for – I also consider him a very good friend and his support means so much to me,” Trump said in a statement.
The billionaire businessman also took to Twitter to praise Falwell:
“Great honor- Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University, one of the most respected religious leaders in our nation, has just endorsed me!”
Great honor- Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University, one of the most respected religious leaders in our nation, has just endorsed me!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 26, 2016
“I am proud to offer my endorsement of Donald J. Trump for President of the United States. He is a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again,” said Jerry Falwell Jr. in a statement.
The Trump Campaign clarified the endorsement is, ”personal and not on behalf of the University.”
Last week, the billionaire businessman unveiled a new radio ad just days after Fawell Jr. introduced Trump at Liberty University’s weekly convocation address. The radio spot features some of Falwell’s comments that were edited together:
"I see a lot of parallels between my father and Donald Trump. Like Mr. Trump, Dad would speak his mind, he would make statements that were politically incorrect. He speaks the truth publicly, even if it is uncomfortable for people to hear," said Falwell in the radio spot.
This endorsement comes a week after Tea Party favorite and former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin endorsed Trump at his Iowa campaign rally. The Donald has been leading in recent polls in the early battleground states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron who specializes in religion and politics, says the timing of the endorsement is very important politically with less than a week left to the Iowa caucuses.
“Fawell’s endorsement of Trump will likely help with Evangelical voters particularly in places like Iowa and South Carolina. It is a personal endorsement that carries a lot of weight in Evangelical circles,” said Green.
He says what is most important in the battle between Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Trump is the Evangelical vote, which is more in line with Cruz’s conservative constituents. However, Green says Trump’s recent attempts on the campaign trail, such as beginning his rallies with prayer, could help attract more than just Evangelical voters.
“In places like Iowa and South Carolina it’s not just the voters, it is also the Christian conservative activists who may be mobilized to turn out the vote for Trump in the polls,” said Green.
He says Falwell’s support does carry weight because of his father’s background, which could cut into Cruz’s support base.
“The Evangelical community is very decentralized and so prominent pastors, university presidents, televangelists and radio personalities can have a really big impact,” said Green.
Cruz got a big Evangelical endorsement of his own when Bob Vander Plaats, the president and CEO of the Family Leader in Iowa, backed his candidacy in December. Vander Plaats is considered to be one of the most influential Evangelical leaders in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
“Vander Plaats is on the ground in Iowa so he not only brings his reputation but he is also leading a network of activists there,” said Green. “These endorsements could off-set each other but a big name brings one kind of help and a grassroots organization brings another kind of help.”
Green says what is interesting about Falwell’s endorsement is that it shows Evangelicals are increasingly supporting “a degree of political pragmatism.” He says in his speech to Liberty University, Falwell mentioned his father’s past voting history, saying, "he was not electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs. He was electing the president of the United States to lead a nation."
In the 1980 election, televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr. supported Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan.
“Falwell makes the point that when his father endorsed Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter it wasn’t about religion because Carter was a very religious man, but the point was that Reagan would be a more successful president,” said Green.
Green says there is evidence that same parallel is being drawn in this election cycle with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
“It will be interesting to see how it all plays out,” said Green.