DES MOINES, Iowa — Evangelicals are again poised to make the difference in the 2016 Iowa caucuses.
In 2008, strong and steady support from Christian evangelicals gave Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee a surprising victory in the GOP Iowa caucus. A late surge of support among Christian evangelicals helped propel Rick Santorum to a surprise, though narrow, victory in the 2012 GOP Iowa caucus over Mitt Romney.
An entrance poll conducted by Edison Research for Associate Press in 2012 emphasized how central evangelicals were to Santorum’s victory.
57 percent of Iowa GOP caucus goers considered themselves evangelicals, far above the 25 percent of the general population that calls themselves Evangelicals.
Among that group, Santorum won 32 percent of all votes, while Romney gained only 14 percent.
Among the 43 percent of caucus attendees who were not evangelicals, the numbers were reversed. Romney gained 28 percent of the vote, while Santorum had only 14 percent.
It was enough to propel Santorum to a narrow 34 vote margin of victory over Romney that evening, though the final results were not known for a week– 29,839 caucus votes to 29,804 caucus votes.
By convention time, 22 of Iowa’s 28 delegates went to 3rd place finisher Ron Paul, with Romney picking up 6 and Santorum picking up none, but it was the caucus evening results that gave Santorum the momentum that left him as the last non-Ron Paul challenger standing in opposition to Romney in the chase for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
Despite the presence of both Santorum and Huckabee in the 2016 GOP race, however, the evangelical vote in Iowa appears to be up for grabs. Ted Cruz’s Religious Liberty rally on Friday is one sign the junior Senator from Texas believes he has the best chance to pick up that support in 2016.
But a July 1 Quinnipiac Poll suggests that Cruz may still have a ways to go.
In that poll, taken just before the huge Donald Trump surge started, Scott Walker still was the overall leader at 16 percent.
Among evangelicals Walker also held sway, but not by much, with 18 percent support, followed by Cruz at 11 percent, Ben Carson at 9 percent, Huckabee and Trump at 8, and Santorum and Bush at 6 percent.
Since that July 1 poll, Trump, Cruz, and Carson have surged nationally while Walker has faded. Huckabee and Santorum have remained static with no indication either will catch fire.
Cruz, whose father Rafael has become an evangelical pastor and speaker since retiring from his business career, has courted the evangelical vote since the beginning of his campaign. His choice to launch his campaign at his campaign at Liberty University, the well known private Christian school founded by Jerry Falwell, was clearly part of that effort.
Recently, Cruz has encouraged evangelicals to vote in the 2016 election, noting that in 2012 54 million of the 90 million evangelicals did not vote.
On Friday evening, Cruz will hold a Rally for Religious Liberty here in Des Moines. At that event, which will focus on “the religious persecution of Christian business owners and employees who have been sanctioned by their government because of their religious beliefs.” Cruz will be joined by Dick and Betty Odgaard of Grimes, Iowa. The Odgaards owned a wedding hosting business that went out of business after experiencing repercussions from their decision to refuse to provide their services to a gay couple for their wedding.
With 28 percent of its population self identifying as evangelical, Iowa is slightly above the national average of 25 percent, though it pales in comparison to Tennessee (52 percent), Kentucky (49 percent), Alabama (49 percent) and Oklahoma (47 percent).
Due to their higher propensity to participate in caucuses than the general population, evangelicals have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of the Feb 1 Iowa caucus, in contrast to the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary, where they make up only 13 percent of the population. The situation changes somewhat in the third primary season contest in South Carolina, where they account for 35 percent of the population.
In Iowa, with barely more than 100,000 caucus goers expected, several thousand committed evangelicals could determine who is declared the winner on February 1.
Despite Huckabee’s victory in 2008 and Santorum’s in 2012, for evangelicals, the race may come down to a choice between Cruz, Dr. Ben Carson, and Donald Trump.
Cruz and Carson are evangelicals. Trump is a Presbyterian who “says he goes to church on Sunday when he can and always on Christmas, Easter, and on special occasions.”
In typical Trump fashion, the Republican front runner also says: “I will be the greatest representative of the Christians they’ve had in a long time,” but questions linger about the sincerity of his relatively recent embrace of a pro-life position on abortion.
In addition to his family’s long history as evangelicals, Cruz recently picked up the endorsement of influential conservative Iowa based talk radio host Steve Deace.
The full impact of that endorsement will probably not be known until February 1. In 2008, Deace backed Mike Huckabee, the caucus victor. In 2012, however, Deaced backed Newt Gingrich, who finished fourth.