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. rmtaks

    Yea, they might take Romney, but how many of them will vote Democrat? Thought so. It doesn't prove they are sophisticated, it proves that they ARE suckers who will dance however their masters tell them to, even when it contradicts what they were told before.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  2. S-Hug

    IF CHURCHES want a voice in politics, they should be required to pay taxes like the rest of us.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  3. Surprisingly intelligent religious man

    I don't believe that CNN actually published this article. This so-called journalist acts 'surprised' that people of faith are actually intelligent!

    Are they serious!?!? Actually, I've really never met a truly intelligent atheist. Well educated maybe. But not intelligent. That includes that lamebrained physicist Stephen Hawking who thinks he has proven that God doesn't exist. In for a shocker there, Steve. Good luck with that declaration.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • rmtaks

      So all these people who are doing ground-breaking science and are also atheists are NOT intelligent? I think you just willfully ignore anything that doesn't support your world view.

      January 4, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  4. Thomas Murray

    first, it's not splintering if all the fundies are voting for republicans in a frickin republican caucus. second, christian fundamentalists voting for christian catholics (who are arguably even more conservative) (i am one, btw) is not a real shocker. third, calling voting habits among fundamentalists "nuanced" is gilding the lily quite a lot, ralph. maybe your editor chuckled at this conceit, but you have to realize there are people out there who take everything you write as fact. the fact is, we conservative christians (whether catholic, lutheran, episcopalian, evangelical, baptist, adventist, et. al.) are largely pro-life, gun-toting, pickup-driving consumerists. our beliefs are fundamentally opposed to those of a pro-choice, lassais faire, pro-gay-rights, anti-war member of the ninety-nine percent. but you really had us going there for a little bit.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  5. JoJo

    In my opinion, only those who voted for Ron Paul acted in conformance with the teachings of Jesus. The rest support unnecessary mass-murder and torture for profit based on lies as in the War of Choice in Iraq in direct contradiction to the spirit and literal teachings of Jesus (turn the other cheek, blessed are the peacemakers, love your enemies, repay evil with good, he who lives by the sword will die by the sword, forgive seventy times seven, thou shalt not kill, etc.). They are the reason I gave up on religion.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  6. Cas

    This basically CONTRADICTS another CNN post ...that many selected Romney because they thought he had the best chance to beat Obama, consistent with various polls!!

    January 4, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  7. alice58

    you actually listen to anything ralph reed says? yeah dont think so...blah blah xians...you're all screwed in the head!

    January 4, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Ralph Reed is a money hungry hypocrite who helped Jack Abramoff run the scams that sent him to prison. He a christian alright... in name only.

      January 4, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  8. BILL

    WRITTEN BY AN EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN??? DON'T YOU BELIEVE IT!!! He will always vote for the anti-abortion candidate even if he has horns and a forked tail.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  9. Marx

    You would never see a CNN article calling Muslims or Jews "suckers", why is that??

    January 4, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  10. Ken

    These people all terrify me. Biblical principles = smaller government? This country was founded on Christian principles? People falling back on faith to get them through decisions and life? No thanks; I'd rather people use their brains to logically figure out the right answer, not wait for their gut to come up with some random answer.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
    • Hawk

      This articale was written by ralph ( phony christian ) reed. he was the one that was right in the middle with ambrahoff and should be in prison with him. he was the one pushing the money from the indian casinos. most all the so called christian consertives and evangelicans are not christians at all. they use religion for their own benifit and purposes. with them it is all about the money and the power it brings.

      January 4, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  11. Nomad

    Americans are nuts and they will get an even bigger nut to lead them. Why are you not solving the problems the country is currently facing? like a 20 trillion + deficit? a corrupt government? lousy schools? no really good paying jobs? slavery?
    I guess you are all waiting for Joseph Smith to come down the latter to save you.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  12. WVU will kick Clemson all over the place

    Just sayin 🙂

    January 4, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • Merry Bear

      Go 'Eers!

      January 4, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  13. Zoldknight

    Honestly, I am disgusted by evangelical voters. First off, what is good for religion and what is good for politics are two separate things. While I'm sure a lot of politician (okay,all of them) should act a bit more Jesus-like, voting for a politician because he says he Christian is strait up ridiculous, main reason being that the politicians don't care. They just want your vote. The worst thing about Christianity is that it is so easy to fake being a follower.If you are going to vote, vote for what they DO. Not because they say they believe in God. Now, I am what some might call a Jesus freak. I will advocate Christianity the moment I am asked. But please, PLEASE, put some thought into your vote. We don't need some war-mongering idiot in office right now, just because he said, "Yes, I believe in God."

    January 4, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  14. deepthunk

    The real myth is the evangelical I.Q. I need to get a T.V. show where I say praise Jesus and send me money, if I promise to say Jesus wants you to vote fascist…err I mean republican, will they give me one?

    January 4, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  15. Cat MacLeod

    The author is trying downplay the statistical FACTS that demonstrate over and over these people are brainless nit wits who talk to invisible men in the sky and do what their pastor tells them. I grew up with Evangelicals, I went to religious schools all my life. These people are willfully ignorant.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Hawk

      Google ralph reed and find the truth about this charlatin.

      January 4, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  16. Cristian

    All of these people interviewed are White. Just saying.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  17. Geoffmag

    The use of the word "evangelical" to describe the fundamentalist chrsitian right is an insult to the Chrisitian faith and tradtion. I am not aware of a an equvalent expression in Chrsitianity to "taliban" for a group of religious fanatics bent establishing a punative dicatorial theocracy. In the end it does not matter. They do not speak for America and they do not speak for the Republican party. The corporate oligarchs and money men that control the GOP have decided its Romney. The Tea Baggers and the religious lunatics wil just have to suck it up and salute smartly... and in the end they will.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  18. Jim8

    Hey, Ralph:
    Your backing of George W Bush proves you are wrong.

    January 4, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • Entil'za

      With that kind of thinking...does that mean over half the nation is wrong?

      January 4, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • Observer

      "With that kind of thinking...does that mean over half the nation is wrong?"

      They got fooled, but caught on eventually. When he got done, Bush had a record-setting DISAPPROVAL of nearly 70%. IF you are going to use statistics, use current ones so they won't be WRONG.

      January 4, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  19. QS

    "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."

    Nice try Ralph, but regardless of how you try to spin this, evangelical or not, religious voters are not the most reasonable or rational voters in our population as they do in fact tend to put their beliefs over other considerations.

    Not to mention, I find it laughable that you would state this is all to the good....ask any member of the gay community if they feel religious people voting on their citizenship status is "all to the good"!

    January 4, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  20. Stephen Nowlin

    Nice try, Ralph . . .

    January 4, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
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About this blog

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.