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. nonsense

    These people claim that God is the key to a good leader but if that leader's God was worshiped through a different faith than theirs then suddenly the ignorant bigot in each one of these people would show its ugly head.

    January 4, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • MarylandBill

      Clearly this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The whole point of Mr. Reed's article was that evangelicals are not voting simply based on the particular faith of the candidate. That being said, not every follower of a religious faith believes in the same God as Christians do, and as a result might have very different views on what is and what is not moral or the proper role of government. I doubt most people in America, Christian, Atheist or other would fail to take into account the faith of a candidate if that faith was an extreme form of Islam; it is simply hypocritical to then judge people who believe that less radical positions on faith don't matter.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  2. Jonathan Stone

    I'm starting to think that "Evangelical" is quickly becoming a misused, oversimplified, and misleading moniker for "bible-believing" Christians.

    January 4, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • JOsh

      It's called Prostheltizining, Recruiting other members to the born again cult sweeping across this country. These people hijack all religions, just as islamic militants hijacked Islam

      January 4, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Joe citizen abroad

      It feels like "evangelical" is being used to describe a supposed consensus on a set of "litmus test" issues: abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools, and so forth. The assumption is that these "evangelicals" think alike on these issues and vote as a block.

      Nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, among people who identify themselves as evangelical, opinions vary widely regarding whether Mormons are in fact Christian. But most Americans would probably say to that, "who cares"? It's irrelevant to the real and pressing problems facing this nation.

      And that's the most disturbing fallout of pandering to an imaginary "evangelical" voting block. It takes the focus off of the issues we need to be resolving urgently for the good of ALL citizens: the economy, job creation, energy management, health care, social security, regulation of the financial/insurance industry, wars abroad, etc.

      Spending time and energy debating whether being gay is a choice? Complete waste of time. And I think Iowa voters returned that verdict with Michele Bachmann's 6th-place finish.

      Message to the media: spend the bulk of your time covering the serious candidates who are talking about the real issues. Stop covering everyone and their brother who opens their mouth to say "I wanna be president" (Trump, Bachmann, Palin, and the rest of reality TVland.)

      January 4, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  3. and...

    Evangelicals are just extreme conservatives who use God as a shield to deflect any criticism what-so-ever.

    January 4, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  4. Rick

    Polticians soliciting a block vote tend to wear religion on their "sleezves" and turn me off immediately. They remind me of the sleezy TV Preachers just preying on people that have to make a daily decision to eat or pay their utilities or take half a pill or skip their meds completely. These are people that really don't care if grandma eats catfood or sleeps without heat...they are not to be trusted to protect real live people. These are Con-Men(or Women) people...pure and simple. Sure they'll protect "religion" ... the religion that paid them the most. Scientology pays quite a bit in political donations...so does the church that used to be run by the rev Sun yung moon..If Corporate America could find a way to be classified as a church and exempt from all taxation, they'd find a "religious" politician and fund them all the way to the top. .I'm all for protecting religious freedoms...but its an all or nothing notion. protections for one over another is not freedom of religion..Wake up and reject these false prophets people...go beyond their "faith" and ask the real questions..what are their plans to hold corporations responsible for their actions....protect the environment,...improve literacy...improve health....improve the economy....improve access to education...Irradicate poverty...irradicate disease...irradicate hate...irradicate ignorance. These are the real THREATS that need to be addressed to protect families...the stuff they want to talk about...MADE UP CRAP TO SCARE YOU TO OPEN YOUR WALLET!

    January 4, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  5. LawnSausage

    Evangelicals and Born Agains are all people who don't understand the meaning of moderation in life. These are the people who feel the need to take things to an extreme no matter what. Drinking, drugs, oxyContin abuse, beating hell out of their families, church, fear, etc. These people are hard wired physiologically to commit to something 100% as long as it serves them alone, and no matter how destructive it is to them or the people around them. I have no issue with people being religious, but your religion is not everyone's religion, and the laws of this land trump your religion. Don't try to change laws to suit your narrow extremism.

    January 4, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Rogue351

      This is hands down the best opinion I have ever read in these forums. I could not agree more.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • MJB

      Actually, people should always vote for what they believe is best for them if democracy is going to work.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  6. Billy

    The fact is, anyone who thinks of themselves as a Christian can call themselves evangelical so long as claim to follow the bible, and they don't follow the Pope. This word is so widely misused nowadays it pretty much just means "protestant". The fact that the vote was so widely split only shows how weak this "politcal group" really is, if it is even a group at all. What, really, does Evengelical mean? Doesn't it just come from early Americans following the big-personality preachers? In other words, followers of other's opinions? Or are we just talking fundamentalists here? Those who believe that the bible is absolute truth, down to Adam's Rib, talking snakes, etc?

    January 4, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Dragon68

      Evangelical comes from the verb "Evangelize", which essentially means "to preach the gospel to those of other belief". It is often misused to refer to conservative protestants, but catholics may also be "evangelical". Essentially, the qualification for being know as evangelical would be in whether you actively preach the gospel to others. Because the nature of this stems from the intent to convert others to your own beliefs, Evangelicals are often seen as arrogant, pushing their beliefs on others. however, to the evangelical, they are on a mission to save souls in the name of the Lord.

      As far as anyone who is christian being able to call themselves "Evangelical", yes that is true, but no more relevant than the fact that I can call myself the King of France. It does not make it true or accurate. The key term to remember here is that these are people who describe themselves as Evangelical, so you are really subject to their knowledge and understanding of that word.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Mark

      Evangelicals are church goers who recruit other people to join their church. There are actually churches out there that don't. But you are right it can apply to a lot of churches. And the religious right is made up of a lot more than just evangelicals. Catholics are a major block in that movement. Sadly the term evangelical likely means right wing political extremist to most of the country moreso than missionary which is what it was originally.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Billy

      Ok that makes sense. So we are talking people who are confident enough in their Christian beliefs to recruit others. Meaning that it is a quality of many religions, and thus a reason that they do not necessarily share political beliefs.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  7. Onoyoudont

    Somebody help me- is a born again Christian any different from other Christians? Considering there are 1000 different brands of Christianity and most Christians believe their brand is right and all the other brands are wrong, what difference does it make?

    January 4, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • jon

      To me the term "born again" just means that a person has screwed up his life royally and now makes some sort of an agreement to get some beliefs that will wash everything away. Why not try to live your lives properly in the first place and avoid all of this baloney?

      January 4, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Mark

      Christians are followers of a religion. Being born again is a spiritual relationship that does not require membership of any church or religion. Salvation was granted by God through grace (free gift) to anyone in the world who has the faith to accept it. He didn't require membership to any church or religion to receive the free gift of salvation. Read John 3:16 and it tells how to receive salvation.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  8. Amira

    These evangelicals make me so glad God gave us the Buddha!

    January 4, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  9. Phil

    "the main things, like life beginning at conception and marriage between a man and a wife."
    Are you kidding me? These are the most important issues???? We have a multi-trillion dollar deficit, are still in one war, will more than likely pick a fight with Iran and push the debt ceiling up even further to fund it, a housing market that has collapsed, no real healthcare solution, lobbyists/corporations walking all over Washington D.C. and you are worried about two dudes getting it on. UN-FRIGGIN-BELIEVABLE!!!!

    January 4, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • JakeDog

      Well Said,

      January 4, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • stainedglassreflections

      If you'll read the article again, Reed pointed out that the economy was the number one issue for evangelicals in Iowa, and abortion was near the bottom of the list.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • jon

      EVERYTHING that this guy Reed wants should be at the bottom of the list.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • rich

      Well said, totally agreed!!!

      January 4, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  10. stainedglassreflections

    I don't always agree with Reed's positions, but I appreciate his comments about the way the media portrays evangelicals. I know evangelicals who are Democrats, as well as many that are Republicans. To characterize us as a herd of sheep following a party line is to slander the many intelligent and compassionate people I know who really think about the decisions they make at the polls.

    And for those posters who pop off insults at the mere mention of evangelicals, perhaps you should meet some and not take your opinions of everyone from that one church you attended or from the punch lines of late-night comics.

    January 4, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • JakeDog

      I too took some heart from some of those comments, the evangelicals and born agian Christians I work with in North Carolina are nothing like that, they are for the most part a bigotted, opinionated, close minded group who rely on dis-information from ultra-conservative website for forming opinions (without stopping to think if what they are parroting even makes since), all vote straight Republican, they may help you if were starving, distruaght, gay or homeless but you have to convert first. It is my impression that Santorum fits this same mold. What ever his faith he come across like an intoleratant extremist. the world has enough of those already.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • BR

      Nice try, but the only evangelicals I've ever met try to talk me out of my religion and into believing what they believe. They have no respect. Their mixing of religion and politics is specifically prohibited in the US, but they keep pushing for a CHRISTIAN nation, completely ignoring that the US is a diverse country, and we need to be inclusive, not exclusive. Quit sneaking in religion to politics!!! Ralph Reed should just admit that one would not call himself an evangelical if the Bible didn't dictate all their decisions.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • JOsh

      Why do you assume all people go to a "church"? You just showed how narrow-minded you are. You've just made a stereotypical born again BS comment.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  11. AG

    How does a candidate's religious views create jobs? How does it cut the debt, or make available affoardable healthcare available for all, or foreign policy? It doesn't! The votes of a few Iowans doesn't nearly represent an even cross section of the nation as a whole. Don't make a big deal about this, I'm not.

    January 4, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  12. Janie

    These people scare the life out of me. No separation of church and state? Life begins at conception. These people are in desperate need of a reality check and a science class. I wonder if that lady who believes life begins at conception has named all the fertilized eggs that have passed out of her body before attaching to the wall of her uterus.

    January 4, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Clif

      It seems as though you are the one that needs a science class. An egg is a single celled organism, when the sperm fertilized the egg, that is life as, if unhindered, it will continue to grow into a human being.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • stainedglassreflections

      Separation of state means that the state can't promote one religion over another. It doesn't mean that an individual cannot promote his or her religious views (this is freedom of speech) or that an individual cannot vote for candidates who support the same moral principles. As for science class, I will refer you to any manual for pregnant women that includes pictures of the baby in utero. With the technology we now have to care for preemies at earlier and earlier stages, as well as in utero surgery for spinal bifida, I really don't believe science is on the side of the pro-choice position.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Mike Johnson

      ... so when does life begin? I myself really don't know ... can't be at birth because we all know that a baby is alive for sure a couple of months after conception. So tell .. when does it begin?

      January 4, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • Religion Fail

      Fine...call it murder or whatever you want just let people choose to have abortions if that is what they want.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Think Instead

      And that is the main issue. I don't care what they believe – they have that right. But these religious politicians main concern is removing that right from others, while masking that as protecting it for themselves.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Paul

      Actually, Life does begin at conception scientifically speaking: "Human development begins after the union of male and female gametes or germ cells during a process known as fertilization (conception).
      "Fertilization is a sequence of events that begins with the contact of a sperm (spermatozoon) with a secondary oocyte (ovum) and ends with the fusion of their pronuclei (the haploid nuclei of the sperm and ovum) and the mingling of their chromosomes to form a new cell. This fertilized ovum, known as a zygote, is a large diploid cell that is the beginning, or primordium, of a human being."
      [Moore, Keith L. Essentials of Human Embryology. Toronto: B.C. Decker Inc, 1988, p.2]

      January 4, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • BR

      thinkinstead: Bingo. Thank you!

      January 4, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  13. Don

    Nuanced? Complex?? Sophisticated??? Choosing between this group is like deciding between Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck or Goofy. This country should be able to find an intelligent and thoughtful candidate instead of picking from a bunch of cartoon characters. Doesn't anyone in the Republican Party have any brains?

    January 4, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • rhonda

      That was my thought when I read that section, too.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Paul

      Donald Duck- Newt Gingrich
      Mickey Mouse- Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney
      Minnie Mouse- Michelle Bachman
      Goofy- Rick Perry

      So where does that leave Ron Paul??? THE CLEAR CHOICE!

      January 4, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Scary Clown

      Jon Huntsman. Who only got 1% of the evangelical vote. The most reasonable and objective figure of the Republican party finishes dead last. No hope

      January 4, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Jared

      Are you asking why republicans don't support Obama or why the field of candidates is lousy? I'm a republican, and I think the field of candidates is weak. To me, Huntsman is the only adult in the crowd and he gets my vote if given the chance. I'd vote for Romney if I had to. Other than those two, I'm just going to have to vote for whatever third party candidate happens to be on the ticket.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Jared

      @Scary Clown

      I'm Evangelical and I support Huntsman. Remember he didn't campaign in Iowa. Let us see what NH has in store for him.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  14. a troll

    separation of church and state is such an overused cliche. read your history books. all but a few if the signers of the declaration were christain. but then, you'll call me a troll and such... i saved you the trouble by calling myself one. what a bunch of dopes

    January 4, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • ChestnutMay

      A cliche? Separation of church and state is a basic founding stone of this country. The fact many of the founding fathers were Christian doesn't negate that.

      January 4, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy one

      Ths founding fathers of this country were Free Masons and were very vocal about the separation of church and state.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Dave

      The majority of the signers considered themselves deists; they did not identify with any church, however did believe in a higher power. People like Jefferson did not think that a "church" should have any bearing on what people decide on a secular issue. They wanted to make sure that people worshiped free from the overbearing power of any church. The separation of church and state was intended to ensure that no state sanctioned any church or particular religion. He saw how that led to conflict in Europe and wanted to avoid that in the new United States.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  15. Cyle

    I hear voices and speak telepathicly to my magic fairy to make everything good happen in my life.

    Please vote for me...

    January 4, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  16. Mark

    How is it that these so-called "Christian" voters are against health care for all and help for the needy?

    January 4, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • stainedglassreflections

      They're not. Some of them are Democrats who believe the government should have a larger role in providing these social services. Some of them are Republicans who believe this kind of work is done better by private charities and churches. You might check on how many church supported charities, including the Salvation Army, are operating in your community. My church has a partnership with the local food bank.

      January 4, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  17. ha ha

    Sophisticated bunch? No, I never thought that. No science, no math....no listening to anyone but themselves...no, that word never came into the thought process...narrow minded, ignorant, using God for their own ends...but sophisticated...nope

    January 4, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  18. JOE

    @indepent jim

    Amen brother!

    January 4, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  19. rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy one

    Rick Santorum = bung hole foam

    January 4, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Shmegma

      Hey Bubba, who are you gonna vote for?
      Well I kinda like that bung hole foam fella. I can see him sliding right into the oval office!

      (Actual conversation overheard at the caucus)

      January 4, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  20. tony

    "Evangelical" and "sophisticated" don't belong in the same sentence.

    January 4, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Not So

      As an example:
      "An sophsticated, well-informed voter would never support an evangelical"

      January 4, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • o.k.

      @Not so..."An sopsiticated" ?? If you're going to insult someone's intelligence in writing (even if implicitly), don't you think you should employ proper grammar?

      January 4, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • o.k.

      I guess I'm guilty too...meant to type "An sophisticated"

      January 4, 2012 at 3:15 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.