(CNN)It’s an axiom in American politics, duly repeated every four years: Evangelicals are the country’s biggest and most powerful religious voting bloc, especially during the GOP primaries.
Like many political axioms, though, it papers over a complex reality.
Yes, evangelicals represent a large slice of the electorate, especially in states that vote early in the campaign calendar. In 2012, 57% of people who participated in the Iowa presidential caucuses identified as “born again” or evangelical. This year, evangelicals are again predicted to make up a majority of GOP primary voters in a slew of states that vote by early March.
But evangelicals rarely vote as a bloc, especially in the primaries. They disagree not only on the candidates but also on more basic principles like how active Christians should be in partisan politics.
“The problem is that many secular people think that all evangelicals are alike, when there are multiple streams and theological and generational divides within evangelicalism,” said Russell Moore, a leading Southern Baptist.
With the help of experts, we counted seven ways evangelicals approach politics. How well the GOP candidates court each camp could determine their fate in the primaries.
1. The old guard
These evangelicals may not share many theological beliefs, but they all appreciate a good business model. They are evangelists who have built television ministries reaching millions of Americans, and Pentecostal preachers who have turned storefront churches into thriving congregations. Others include Jerry Falwell Jr., who grew the family business, Liberty University, into one of the country’s largest Christian colleges.
They appreciate brash personalities who play well on television, and they don’t mind a little political incorrectness. Led by his friend, Florida televangelist Paula White, Donald Trump began his evangelical outreach with this group last year. At an appearance at Liberty this month Falwell all but endorsed Trump, telling students the real estate mogul reminded him of his father.
4. ‘Arm’s length’ evangelicals
They don’t often appear on the radar of mainstream media — in part because they talk more about Christ than caucuses — but “arm’s length” evangelicals dominate some the most dynamic movements within conservative Christianity. They consider it foolhardy for candidates to use their faith as a footstool to higher office and are reluctant to fuse the sacred sphere of religion with profane politics.
Arm’s length pastors include Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, who counsels his congregation to get involved in politics but to be “very critical” of both parties. As he put it: “Don’t sell your soul.”
John Piper, a former megachurch pastor in Minnesota and one of the most influential evangelical voices, said churches and their ministers should remain apart from political activism. Their job, rather, is to “feed the saints” who perform charity.
Arm’s length evangelicals are likely to look askance at a hard sell from presidential candidates like Ted Cruz, who has told evangelicals in Iowa that, “if the body of Christ rises up as one and votes our values, we can turn this country around.”
Rubio’s approach in this campaign advertisement, in which he explains his faith but doesn’t mention political issues, might resonate more strongly with this group.
5. Millennial evangelicals
These evangelicals were raised Christian but don’t go to church or consider religion that important in their lives. Still, when pollsters ask about their faith, they call themselves evangelical, much like nonreligious Jews still identify as Jewish.
A majority of born again Christians have tended to view Trump favorably, according to Reuters’ rolling poll. But his popularity drops significantly among evangelicals who attend church weekly, a key marker of religious commitment.
That may explain why cultural evangelicals don’t seem dismayed by Trump’s description of Communion as “his little cracker,” his inability to name a favorite Bible verse and his recent flubbing of a New Testament reference.
Trump may lose the evangelical vote in Iowa, where church attendance is high, but win their favor in other parts of the country, where faith is more a matter of culture than weekly worship, said Mark Silk, an expert on religion and politics at Trinity College in Connecticut.
“A Southern guy is susceptible to Trump in a way that an Iowa Pentecostal probably isn’t.”