January 4th, 2012
12:10 AM ET

My Take: Iowa caucus results puncture myth of 'evangelical vote'

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Iowa • Opinion • Politics

soundoff (987 Responses)
  1. Linda

    Nonsense, if they were sophisticated they would reject this bunch of losers. The only person in the bunch who makes any kind of sense is Huntsman.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:02 pm |

    I disagree with the premise of this article. Rick Santorum's strong showing is proof that Evangelicals vote for religious principles over all else. The fact that he is Catholic is a bit of a downer for them, but he was the closest thing to a crusader and a preacher that they had to choose from! Coming from a devout Catholic!!!

    January 4, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  3. Snark Knight

    Okay they're sophisticated, but they still voted in large numbers for Rick Santorum.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  4. aginghippy

    Using the terms evangelical and sophisticated in the same sentence is a contradiction in terms.

    January 4, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • JennieOrbien

      ??my buddy's ex-wife makes $76 an hour on the laptop.Follow the instructions at Online Income Solution and set up your account.. http://goo.gl /mCtvT

      January 4, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  5. Hitchens Ghost

    Ralph, how is Jack Abramoff these days?

    January 4, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  6. iamduder

    Evangelical AND Sophisticated Voter DOES NOT belong in the same sentence. You fail CNN.

    January 4, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  7. Old Fool

    Ralph, you are as sleazy a guy as there ever was. After decades in sales I know a slick salesman when I see one. You have an answer for everything and when you dont you get God to bail you out. Santorum's campaign was all about the evangelicals. Look what it did for him in Iowa. it's all he has to sell. It will not be enough to sustain him through New Hampshire. That will be proof that your numbers are way off. In the city we call someone like you a "wrong dude." The church ladies will warm to Romney. He is the inevitable. I am sure he can find a place for you in his campaign.

    January 4, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  8. countdekainfeldas

    I still can't believe there are people like this in the United States of America.

    Just goes to show you we need to put more money into a better more efficient education system free from religious bias.

    (I grew up outside the states and it's just appalling. It's the religious people of America that have me yearning to be free, overseas.

    January 4, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  9. frogprince

    Only one thing is absolutely required to be a evangeliclal Christain. Have no brains! Oh, sorry. I plagiarized Nietsche

    January 4, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
  10. Larry

    Here we go. The top four.

    Ron Paul – the known racist. Why does he keep dodging the racist letters issue?

    The anti-christ – “Corporations are people too.” “Let you homes foreclose.” The S. O. B. who pretends to be a Conservative.

    Lily white – “I don’t want to make b l a c k people’s lives better by giving them other peoples money.”

    Newt – the S. O. B. who is a Conservative

    Obama’s approval above 50%. Now we know why

    January 4, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
  11. Mike

    No way. The only distinguishing feature of Santorum is his overt Evangelicalism. How can you compare his other credentials and answers to debate questions to the most honest and highly intelligent responses of a medical doctor and soldier who for decades has espoused sound monetary policy and has been proven correct time and again.

    January 4, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
  12. Krh240

    The only thing Iowa showed is that conservatives are more interested in social issues than they are in electability (Romney) experience (Gingrich), or a sound economic and foreign policy record (Huntsman). Add together Santorum's 25%, Perry's 10%, Bachmann's 5%, and it becomes clear that the issues of abortion and gay marriage once again dominated this conservative, at the expense of the issues that matter.

    January 4, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Catca

      If the biggest issue is jobs to the majority of Americans who will vote in the general election, why does the Republican party seem to think the guy with the most comprehensive set of economic and foreign policy proposals as well as the one most experienced and capable of dealing with China is not the most electable??? Huntsman may not be winning the national polls, but voters don't know much about him yet. Why is there a foregone conclusion that Romney is the one most able to beat President Obama? Why is a guy with a record as impressive as Huntsman's getting so little attention from Republican voters?

      January 4, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  13. what?

    If you want to live in a theocracy, MOVE TO IRAN.

    January 4, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • iamduder

      If the conservative christians had their way, you WOULD be living in a theocracy...

      January 4, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • Mellowme

      You don't have to go that far....just UTAH!

      January 4, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  14. John89

    "Evangelical voters, it turns out, are a more sophisticated bunch.." Noooooo, REALLY??? I thought we all came out of our holes and caves to mindlessly vote.

    January 4, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • iamduder

      back to your hole christian... its a scary world filled with gays, science and diversity out there.

      January 4, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Agent P

      If it weren't for the forward thinkers, scientist,s and others who dont buy your Bronze Age mythology, you WOULD be living in a cave.

      January 4, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  15. Surthurfurd

    Yet we still have the delusion that evangelicals are fundamentalists with a right wing outlook. There are evangelicals on all sides of the political spectrum and many who have been rather determined to not lock themselves into a political movement at all.

    January 4, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Catca

      I think the term evangelical is too broad to be terribly meaningful. The better term to use would be fundamentalists to refer to what the media is referring when they use the term evangelical.

      January 4, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • Agent P

      Unfortunately, very few. The evangelical movement does not promote or foster free thinking.

      January 4, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  16. QuestionAuthority

    Those numbers show no sophistication. The vast majority of evangelicals will not vote for a Mormon, regardless of how much sense he makes (not that Romney makes much sense). Those numbers prove that. Santorum has zero chance in this election, unless evangelicals are the only ones who turn out to vote. He will lose badly in the Northeast and West, but will probably take some southern and midwestern states that don't matter. Having been raised in an evangelical family, I know too well the evangelical feeling toward other "faiths." Voting for Romney would be like voting for the devil to true evangelicals.

    January 4, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  17. Hitchens Ghost

    Mr. Reed, tell it to Abramoff.

    January 4, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  18. Laura518

    Oh, please! Someone like Santorum would never done as well had it not been for these evangelicals. And ever take a look at Sarah Palin's facebook page? A bunch of religous zealots are on there quoting scripture and comparing the nut to bibical figures. Ultimately, though, the rest of the country is moderately religious and recognize these freaks for what they are.

    January 4, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  19. Steve

    Okay... Let's pretend the gentleman can separate himself from is beliefs which is not likely. Let's pretend he believes in the separation of church and state which is not likely. Last, let's pretend anything he has to say has anything to do with main-stream America. Again, seems a cold day in a warm place. Sorry, Ralph, not buying into anything you've got to say!

    January 4, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  20. Rich

    By the looks of things,Rick Perry for instance,we need less churches and more schools...Maybe the blood sucking pastors will actually have to find a real job...

    January 4, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.