January 4th, 2012
12:10 AM ET
Editor's Note: Ralph Reed is founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
By Ralph Reed, Special to CNN
(CNN)–One of the most important sub-plots in the Iowa caucuses was which candidate would win the support of Iowa’s evangelical voters, who comprised 60 percent of the vote in 2008, and according to the CNN entrance poll, comprised 58% of the vote Tuesday night.
In the media’s instant analysis, a “splintering” of Iowa's evangelical vote among numerous candidates made it difficult for them to influence the selection of the Republican presidential nominee.
But this narrative is based on a caricature of evangelicals and other voters of faith. Consider this: 61% of self-identified evangelicals who attended a caucus Tuesday night in Iowa voted for a candidate who is either Roman Catholic (Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum) or Mormon (Mitt Romney, who won the caucuses, besting Santorum by eight votes ).
Here's how the evangelical vote broke down: 32% for Santorum, 18% for Ron Paul, 13% each for Romney, Gingrich and Rick Perry, 6% for Michele Bachmann and 1% for Jon Huntsman.
This suggests a more nuanced and complex portrait of voters of faith. They are often crudely portrayed as voting based solely on identity politics, born suckers for quotes from Scripture or “code words” laced in the speeches of candidates appealing to their spiritual beliefs.
Evangelical voters, it turns out, are a more sophisticated bunch, judging candidates on a broad continuum of considerations from their personal faith and character to leadership attributes and electability.
There is a story out of Iowa - a story about a faith community that has matured beyond voting for the “most evangelical” candidate as a “statement” and takes seriously the responsibility of electing someone to occupy the Oval Office at a time of great national testing.
The same is true of Tea Party voters, women voters, or other subgroups within the electorate. None is breaking overwhelmingly for a single candidate, primarily because so many candidates have made credible appeals for their support, and because there is no single consensus front-runner.
The truth is that evangelical vote has never been monolithic. Pat Robertson won strong support from his coreligionists in Iowa in 1988, catapulting his candidacy to national prominence, but still lost the caucuses to Bob Dole, and lost the evangelical vote to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in South Carolina.
George W. Bush won a third of the evangelical vote in Iowa in 2000, splitting that vote with Steve Forbes and more explicitly social conservative candidates like Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes. These voters march to their own drummer. They don’t bleat like sheep or move in herds, and they rarely respond en masse to endorsements.
This point is underscored by the entrance poll, which found that 42% of caucus-attenders list the economy as the number one issue in determining their vote, and 34% cite the budget deficit; only 14% listed abortion.
This is not to suggest that social issues are unimportant. No candidate can be competitive in Iowa (or beyond) without conservative credentials on the cultural agenda. Indeed, Santorum’s surge was in part a response to his deftly weaving the economic and social agendas together, arguing that it is impossible to have a vibrant economy without strong families.
It does suggest, as Kimberly Strassel recently observed in The Wall Street Journal, that evangelicals are embedded in the social and economic mainstream of American life and, as such, are motivated by a broad range of concerns, including jobs, taxes, the debt, and national security.
So when commentators prognosticate about the “evangelical vote,” we might want to ask them, “which one?” For there are there are many evangelical votes, many candidates who win their support, and a multitude of motivations for their engagement in the rough-and-tumble of American politics.
This is all to the good. It demonstrates that their civic involvement is a cause for celebration, not alarm, a sign of the health of our political system, not that it suffers from an anti-democratic or sectarian impulse.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ralph Reed.
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