December 31st, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Why do Iowa’s evangelicals wield so much political clout?

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) – At first blush, it’s just another standard-issue political rally.

Inside Mitt Romney’s Iowa headquarters – a former Blockbuster store on a commercial strip outside downtown – Romney and his wife, Ann, are introduced by former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty and his wife, Mary.

“It is an honor to be supporting Gov. Romney and Ann,” Mary Pawlenty tells the crowd of a couple hundred, a silver cross dangling from her neck. “They are good people, they share our values – these are people that we are delighted to call friends.”

How Mitt Romney's faith shaped him

A few moments later, Mitt Romney mentions his five sons and hands his microphone to 36-year-old Josh, who calls his dad “my hero.”

“He taught me my great love for this country,” Josh says, “and my great love for my family.”

Sounds like typical political posturing, right? Many Americans wouldn’t give such gestures a second thought.

But experts on religion and politics say the message to one particular subculture – evangelical Iowans – is clear: Mitt Romney may be Mormon, but he shares evangelical Christian values, including a rock-solid commitment to family, and counts high-profile evangelicals like the Pawlentys as friends and supporters.

“It’s less an attempt to create a trust among evangelicals and more to defuse a distrust,” says Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines.

Mark DeMoss, an evangelical PR specialist and Romney campaign adviser, puts a more positive spin on the strategy: “A number of evangelicals are really enthusiastic about him and have endorsed Romney, and for the same reason that I like him – he shares my values.”

Romney’s Mormonism and his past social liberalism have fed doubts about him among some evangelicals. But with the first-in-the nation Iowa caucuses just days away, the former Massachusetts governor is hardly the only candidate honing his message for evangelical Iowans.

Newt Gingrich has met with hundreds of evangelical pastors in the state, talking policy but also about past marital infidelity, which many Christians consider a sin. Rick Perry has given Sunday morning testimonials from the pulpits of Hawkeye State megachurches.

Newt Gingrich's faith narrative

And Rick Santorum, who is riding a late-breaking surge in Iowa polls, and Michele Bachmann have all but staked their candidacies on winning big among evangelical Iowans, claiming to be more conservative than the rest of the Republican field on hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage.

How did one faith-based demographic come to wield so much power? The answer is basic math – and passion.

“Relatively few people participate in the Iowa caucuses, so it’s ideal for a group of highly committed activists to have a big influence,” says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron.

Unlike conventional primaries, Iowa’s caucuses, scheduled for Tuesday, require voters to attend what are essentially community get-togethers at which participants can speak publicly for candidates. It’s more cumbersome than pulling a lever in a voting both, and a relatively small minority of registered voters attend.

“Evangelical churches and interest groups have been able to generate that kind of activity,” Green says. “They’ve been active in Iowa for a long time, so a tradition has taken hold there.”

Rick Perry's long faith journey culminates in White House run

In 2008, evangelical Christians accounted for 60% of Republican caucus-goers. With just 119,000 Iowans participating in the GOP caucuses that year – high by historical standards – the bloc helped propel Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, to a first-place finish.

In previous election cycles, evangelicals accounted for a more modest share of the Iowa GOP electorate, but their ranks have nonetheless hovered around 40%.

That makes evangelical Iowans unusually influential even by the standards of the national Republican Party, in which evangelical Christians have constituted the base since Ronald Reagan was elected president.

From Carter to Bush

Despite the modern GOP-evangelical alliance, it was a Democrat who first tapped that power base in Iowa.

Jimmy Carter was the first presidential candidate in modern American politics to call himself a born-again Christian, and he spent long stretches in Iowa during his 1976 campaign. Finishing ahead of every candidate (“uncommitted” took first) there lent early momentum to a candidate who’d been virtually unknown nationally.

Before Carter, says Drake’s Dennis Goldford, “evangelicals didn’t participate in politics because it was seen as this “worldy, corrupting, evil thing, and you stayed away from it.”

Modern American evangelicalism emerged in the late 19th century, built around biblical literalism and an emphasis on human sin and redemption. The movement was largely a reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution and questions that modern science raised about biblical authority.

The 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which struck down the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools, turned the evangelical movement into a national laughingstock and provoked an evangelical retreat from politics.

Carter, a Baptist Sunday School teacher, brought them back together.

But many evangelicals wound up feeling betrayed by Carter’s liberalism, and Reagan’s courtship of first-generation Christian right leaders, as well as his conservative rhetoric on issues like abortion, sent hordes of evangelicals to the GOP.

In 1988, televangelist Pat Robertson finished second in the Iowa caucuses, ahead of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, putting Iowa evangelical power on the national map. Says Goldford: “They came out of nowhere.”

In the 1990s, with the rise of Robertson’s Christian Coalition, many evangelicals landed positions of power within the Iowa Republican Party. Catholics and other religious believers also became more active in the state GOP, raising the profile of issues like abortion and marriage, but they could not compete in number with the evangelicals.

Since then, Republican presidential hopefuls have tailored their messages to evangelical Iowans. When George W. Bush was asked which political philosopher had most influenced him in a debate before the 2000 Iowa caucus, he responded “Jesus.”

A diluted role?

In this election cycle, all the Republican presidential candidates have spoken deeply about their personal Christian faith while in Iowa, except for Romney and Jon Huntsman, both Mormons.

After spending considerable time in Iowa in 2008, much of it courting evangelicals, Romney placed second, far behind Huckabee. This time around, Romney has spent much less time here, skipping some major evangelical cattle calls and unleashing the ire of some powerful Christian activists.

Huntsman, for his part, has ignored Iowa to focus his efforts on New Hampshire, which votes a week after Iowa.

A CNN/TIME/ORC poll last week found that Romney had the support of 16% of likely evangelical caucus-goers in Iowa, compared to 22% for Santorum, 18% for Ron Paul and 14% for Gingrich, who had much higher evangelical support in earlier Iowa polls.

“Romney’s campaign has a very deliberate plan to snub social conservatives,” says Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a key conservative group in the state.

“If Romney becomes the nominee,” Scheffler says, “95% of his volunteers will need to come from the conservative base. If he’s dissed them through the caucus process, it’s going to be challenging for him to get these people to campaign for him to become president.”

Scheffler is a testament to evangelical influence in the caucuses; his group has hosted caucus trainings in churches across the state in the run-up to January 3.

Most evangelical leaders insist their skepticism of Romney is born of his past social liberalism. But some in-the-pews evangelicals, interviewed at a pair of Iowa evangelical churches on a recent Sunday, admitted to an anti-Mormon bias.

Many believe that Mormons – who, unlike traditional Christians, believe in holy books beyond the Bible and practice customs like posthumous proxy baptism – belong to a cult.

“A growing number of people are afraid to vote for him because they are not sure how his Mormonism will affect his presidency,” says Jonathan Meyer, a pastor at Grace Church in Des Moines. “And because he doesn’t talk about that.”

Other Iowan evangelicals say Romney’s Mormonism isn’t a deal-breaker. “We talked about it in my Bible study,” says Patrick Finnegan, 27, who attended a recent Romney rally wearing a blue “Romney supporter” T-Shirt. “And we said as long as he believes in Jesus Christ, and as long as he’s not an atheist, we support him. I just want someone who shares my belief in a higher power.”

Other Iowa evangelicals echoed that view, calling Romney a Christian.

One complicating factor in the evangelical equation is that the main alternative to Romney as a viable national candidate appears to be Gingrich. The former House speaker has strenuously courted evangelical leaders and aided last year’s successful campaign to unseat three pro-gay marriage Iowa judges but has admitted to personal moral failings, including an affair with his current wife while married to his second wife.

Many Iowa evangelicals say Gingrich has redeemed himself. “I appreciate Newt acknowledging that he needs forgiveness,” says Meyer, who speaks with a Bible tucked under his arm in the Christmas-tree bedecked lobby of Grace Church. “He didn’t have to address that.”

Others are less enthusiastic.

“There’s not enough attention being paid to Newt’s fall from grace,” says Beverly McLinden, 55, an Iowa evangelical who works in association management and attended the Des Moines Romney rally. “Romney’s family exemplifies family values, and you can’t discount that just because he’s a Mormon.”

Evangelical angst over Gingrich and Romney has helped fuel Santorum’s surge, with the former Pennsylvania senator receiving 16% support in the most recent CNN poll, putting him in third place, behind Romney and Paul.

No candidate had even 25% of evangelical support in the most recent poll, raising the possibility that Iowa’s evangelical vote will be pretty diluted this week.

“This vote is terribly critical,” says Ralph Reed, who leads the national Faith and Freedom Coalition. “But the irony is that with this many candidates all appealing to this constituency at the same time, the vote is likely to get spread out.”

‘Democrats are trying to strip God out’

If Iowa’s evangelicals disagree on whom to support, interviews with dozens of them reveal a striking consistency in the role their faith plays in shaping that decision.

Even as the economy and jobs consistently rank as top issues in the presidential race, many evangelical Iowans say they’re weighing the personal faith of the candidates and that they still care about social issues and honoring the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage.

“Most of the folks I’ve dealt with in the evangelical community always care about the economy and spending and taxes,” says Santorum, who has spent most of his time as a presidential candidate campaigning in Iowa. “But the priority issues that have always been up front are the moral, cultural issues.”

“They want to make sure that it’s someone who is comfortable in their skin to fight those battles,” says Santorum, a devout Catholic who has nonetheless landed on TIME’s list of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals.

Gail Johnson, a dentist’s assistant who was heading into Grace Church – a megachurch whose sanctuary is hung with giant Christmas wreaths and a back-lit cross – agrees.

“I have no clue who I’m voting for, other than that it will be a Republican,” she says. “Smaller government and no abortion are the two big issues for me.”

Grace Church is the kind of congregation where worshippers take notes during the sermon, which on this Sunday focused on the importance of believing in Jesus’ virgin birth.

Sue Cornelius-Leibrand, an accountant who also attends Grace, says she would prefer “a president who believes in the same things that I do.”
“I know they won’t agree with everything,” says Cornelius-Leibrand, who wears diamond earrings and carries a stylish black bag and a leather-bound bible with a pink strap. “But the main things, like life beginning at conception and marriage between a man and a wife.”

Many evangelicals cite what they see as religion’s shrinking role in the public square as another concern. “This nation was founded on Christian ethics and that’s what made the country great,” says Sue Raibikis, a pharmaceutical sales rep and an evangelical Christian who attended the Romney rally. “Democrats are trying to strip God out of the country.”

Republican candidates are addressing those concerns in different ways. Gingrich talks about stopping a secular war on religion. Perry gives Christian testimony, telling worshippers at Des Moines’ Point of Grace Church on a recent Sunday: “There’s a hole in one’s heart that can only be filled by one thing.”

Santorum and Bachmann are emphasizing their voting records on hot buttons like abortion, saying other candidates just talk about these issues.

The jockeying introduced a major shot of religion to the presidential race from the very start, a contribution that some political experts argue threatens to curtail Iowa’s influence in the nominating process.

“The strength of evangelicals in the Iowa Republican Party could turn into a weakness if they are seen as so strong that Republicans around the nation begin to discount the results of the caucuses,” says Drake University’s Goldford.

“You’re beginning to see some of that – McCain chose not to campaign here last time,” he says. “And Romney hasn’t been here much this time.”

The state’s track record for picking Republican winners is mixed. Huckabee, for instance, won big in Iowa but lost his party’s nomination. But George W. Bush and Bob Dole won Iowa and went on to the GOP nomination.

The Republican primary calendar, if nothing else, will strengthen the influence of Iowa and its evangelicals, argues Green, of the University of Akron.

New Hampshire, with fewer evangelicals, follows Iowa in primary voting. But the next in line is South Carolina, where 60% of voters in the last Republican presidential primary identified as evangelicals.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Iowa • Michele Bachmann • Mike Huckabee • Mitt Romney • Newt Gingrich • Politics • Rick Santorum

soundoff (837 Responses)


    January 2, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  2. Enufidiots

    If it wasn't for all of the bigoted so-called "christians" who won't vote for a mormon, Romney would have the nomination sewed up. Better wise-up GOPers, Romney's the only one of your ilk that independents will vote for.....and you desperately need those voters in order to beat Obama!

    January 2, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  3. m

    Because Iowa is irrelevant and it is the only way the evangelicals get any exposure. Take your religious beliefs and keep them inside the walls of your church or home and leave the rest of the sane world alone.

    January 2, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Bobs Friend

      Take your atheist beliefs and keep them inside your home and out of my schools...

      See how absurd you sound?

      January 2, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  4. blake

    Perhaps because evangelicals represent 29% of the American populace. And a much larger percentage when you get outside of the major cities on the east and west coasts.

    January 2, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  5. Rosey

    If we could just get back to One Nation Under God, bring back the simplicity of Christian values in our schools, etc., life would be so much better.

    January 2, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • palintwit

      Eddie Haskel was boinking June Cleaver on leave it to Beaver.

      January 2, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • independent jim

      christian values are not taught in school ..they are taught in the home and church .. if people want christian prayers in school .. they should send their children to private school .. religions other than christian should not have to sit thru christian prayers .. would the people that want prayer at church object .. if the prayer said was a – jewish – muslim – hihdu prayer .. Jewish-Hindu- Muslims in America pay taxes .. why should there children be forced to pray in a faith they do not believe in ..at the tax payers expense

      January 2, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • m

      Those Cleavers were really into beavers!

      January 2, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  6. Dave

    Why are Iowas evengelicals so powerful? Because they are wizards that study the dark arts!

    January 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  7. rick perrytwit... slack jawed bible thumper

    There is a higher incidence of incest in evangelical families than in any other group.

    January 2, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • A Little Help

      How do you know?

      January 2, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • rick perrytwit... slack jawed bible thumper

      Years of research and countless interviews with those unfortunate enough to live in the 'bible belt'.

      January 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • A Little Help

      Anything written?

      January 2, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • rick perrytwit... slack jawed bible thumper


      January 2, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • anotherGuest

      Well, out with it man!

      January 2, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  8. Russ

    Mit Romney wears magic Mormon underwear. If you don't believe me, Google it.

    January 2, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Know What


      The Mormon's special underwear (the 'garment') is probably the least of their outlandish beliefs. It's just like Christians' wearing a cross on a chain, or the Sikhs, who always carry their ceremonial knife (Kirpan), or many other symbols that people wear as a token reminder of their beliefs.

      January 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Know What

      p.s. please excuse my mangled use of possessive apostrophes ^ there.

      January 2, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Joe

      Belief in magic underwear. This seems to be an anti-Mormon belief, I know no LDS who believe this. We do wear priesthood clothing, many religions do this (I don’t know if Jewish people, Priests, and others are mocked for their priestly clothing, but I don’t generally see mocking theirs tolerated in comment sections, only if it is said about Mormons.)

      January 2, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  9. Senor Ed

    Under an evangelical government all departments (starting with education – who needs that?) would be ended. The only one necessary would be the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Smaller government, except when it comes to enforcing their morals and standards on everyone else.

    January 2, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  10. Joe

    It is sad to see so many Americans maligning others, not for their politics, but for their religion. There is room for all, but America was founded by religious people, and upon religious principles. Mitt is especially subjected to people dishonestly accusing him of all manner of evil. It seems there is an effort to divide and conquer. I can't help but feel that those (left or right) who defame on religious grounds, are more concerned with their Special Interest than they are with the fate of our Country.

    January 2, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • SafeJourney

      Do just a little research and find out what our "Founding Fathers" thought about religion in government.

      January 2, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Angela

      Except that this country was NOT founded by religious people!

      January 2, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • palintwit

      Our founding fathers were " Free Masons" , moron.

      January 2, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Tony

      I find it amusing, yet distressing, that you say Americans, but what you really mean is Evangelicals. They are the ones who want to force their views onto others and resort to name calling and negativity when faced with opposition. One only has to visit a Fox forum to see the bile that errupts from the mouths of those who say Jesus' views are their guiding principles.

      January 2, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  11. SafeJourney

    Religion has NO place in American government. If the evangelicals want to stick there noses and belief into government then THEIR CHURCHES CAN PAY TAXES JUST LIKE THE REST OF AMERICA.

    January 2, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • M.F. Luder

      It would certainly help with the deficit.

      January 2, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  12. Goodguy1

    They threw all their support behind Bush, they stole us much money as they could and threw us into war. Evangelicals, what a joke.

    January 2, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  13. georgex

    And it was one of good Christians that tricked the media and Congress and the people into going to war with Iraq under a threat of a mushroom cloud. We don't need anyone else to be president of the U.S. who has an average mind and claims to take directions from a God. That Republicans' mistake has been extremely costly to the nation in many ways to say nothing about the destruction and deaths of the Iraqi people

    January 2, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Joe

      I'm not sure why my comment won't post, so I'll try a reply to george... I think there is room in America for everyone, especially since America was founded by religious people.

      January 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

      Joe, Page back and look over your post for any of these:

      Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
      co-ck.....as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, etc.
      co-on.....as in rac-oon, coc-oon, etc.
      cu-m......as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
      cu-nt.....as in Scu-ntthorpe, a city in the UK famous for having problems with filters...!
      ef-fing...as in ef-fing filter
      ft-w......as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, drift-wood, etc.
      ho-mo.....as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, etc.
      ho-rny....as in tho-rny, etc.
      hu-mp… as in th-ump, th-umper, th-umping
      jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
      ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
      o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
      pr-ick....as in pri-ckling, pri-ckles, etc.
      ra-pe.....as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
      se-x......as in Ess-ex, s-exual, etc.
      sp-ic.....as in desp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      sp-ook… as in sp-ooky, sp-ooked
      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, etc.
      va-g......as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
      who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!

      January 2, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • A Little Help

      also vibra.tor as in Tom Tom the Piper's Son

      January 2, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  14. Duke One

    PERRY 2012 !!

    January 2, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • rick perrytwit... slack jawed bible thumper


      January 2, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  15. Emmy Skaddittle

    what else do people in Iowa have to do but pray for a better life

    January 2, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • M.F. Luder

      A better harvest this year?

      January 2, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • rick perrytwit... slack jawed bible thumper

      They like to boff their cousins right after church every Sunday.

      January 2, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  16. spanglish

    If they approve abortion and are pro choice they better shut their mouths.To approve (abortion) that is being hypocrites and amoral with double standards

    January 2, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  17. Just a sinner

    If the religious right wants to control our government and force its beliefs on all Americans, their churches should not be tax exempt.

    January 2, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • dude_q

      I agree with you very strongly on that one.
      Why are churches tax exempt but yet able to support and donate money to political candidates?

      Isn't it a fair argument if you want to take part in government you should pay taxes?

      January 2, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • znHcats

      Totally agreed! Why are those rich posters live in their multimillions dollars masons and all of their fortunes are from their followers? Do their deeds contradict what the bible tell them what to do? If they always insist "we should obey the words from bible".
      If they are so pious to their religions, keep it to their church, family, and their daily behavious not try to bring their religion to our government. And pay your tax!

      January 2, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  18. ShawnDH

    American evangelicals are the American Taliban. Extremists who want to force their twisted, morally retarded version of Sharia Law on the entire nation. No thanks.

    January 2, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • AGuest9

      I am so glad that people are realizing this!

      January 2, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Recovering Republican

      You are completely correct brother. Jesus will have nothing to do with these extremist who are too busy acting like Taliban, that they forgot that Christianity is really about love and foregiveness.

      January 2, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  19. An inconvenient truth

    I do not want justice, justice will not serve me well. I am guilty. I desire grace, God's unmerited favor. I would rather accept the grace of God today than face the judgement of God in my sinful state and all alone later.

    January 2, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • That's why they invented graft!

      "I don't want justice! I want to get off scot free while others do hard time! That's why I paid off the judge!" How is that different from what Christians admit to doing with their divine butt kissing in the name of escaping punishment and enjoying bliss?

      January 2, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • An inconvenient truth

      I did not pay off the judge, the judge Himself took my full penalty and paid it for me. There is no way anyone can pay off the judge. Grace is God's "unmerited" favor, I cannot buy grace I can only accept or reject it. I choose to accept grace and live in grat itude to Him who gave it.

      January 2, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  20. An inconvenient truth

    Historical reference is evidence

    January 2, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • HotAirAce

      No it is not.

      January 2, 2012 at 9:05 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.