‘It was the Evangelicals’: How the Evangelical Vote Shaped the Results in Iowa

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a campaign event at the Grace Baptist Church, Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in Marion, Iowa.

By Al Perrotta Published on February 2, 2016

Donald Trump supporters — at least those quoted by Byron York — offered a simple reason for their guy’s defeat in Iowa:

“It was the evangelicals,” said Dick Stoffer of West Des Moines. “They’ve done it before — they did it four years before with Santorum, they did it with Huckabee before that.”

“The evangelicals,” said Carol Anne Tracy of West Des Moines. “We’ve got a lot of evangelicals, and I just don’t think they felt that [Trump] praised God enough.”

“It’s happened before — the guy with the biggest Bible wins Iowa,” said Ken Crow, a Tea Party activist from Winterset.

Are they right? What role did evangelical Christians play in last night’s results? Let’s look at some numbers.

The Numbers

  1. Overall Turn-Out: 186,000 Republicans took part in the caucus. That’s a more than 50% increase over the previous record of 120,000.
  2. Evangelical ParticipationCNN’s entrance polling indicates 64% of GOP caucus-goers identified themselves as Born Again/Evangelical Christians. That’s up from 57% in 2012. And as The Weekly Standard notes, that’s way up from the 47% projected in the final Des Moines Register poll, which predicted a Donald Trump victory.
  3. Evangelical Preference: The evangelical vote sided 34% for Cruz, 22% for Trump and 21% for Marco Rubio, with Dr. Ben Carson garnering another 12%.

So, if a great deal more people took part, and a greater percentage of those taking part were evangelicals and a greater percentage of those evangelicals went Ted Cruz’s way, it’s no wonder some of the first words out of the Texas senator’s mouth last night were “To God be the glory!”

It’s also worth noting that 42% listed “shares my values” as their “Top Candidate Quality.” For those voters, Cruz, Rubio and Carson ranked highest, with Trump far behind. That suggests that without the Carson factor, Rubio would likely have beaten Trump.

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, greets supporters  during a caucus night rally, Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. Cruz sealed a victory in the Republican Iowa caucuses, winning on the strength of his relentless campaigning and support from his party's diehard conservatives. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, greets supporters during a caucus night rally, Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Beyond the Numbers

Ted Cruz, the son of a preacher, had worked tirelessly to court the evangelical vote in Iowa. Reason‘s Nick Gillespie is suggesting today that Cruz’s evangelical pitch may have worked in Iowa, but won’t work in a national election. Not so, counters Cruz. Part of his overall strategy is to draw in the millions of evangelicals who’ve spent recent elections on the sidelines. He predicts if 10 million more evangelical Christians show up at the polls in November, “They’ll call the election at 8:35 p.m.” The strategy may well be working already. Conventional wisdom had been a high turnout would benefit Trump. However, as NPR reports, “according to entrance polls, 45 percent of GOP voters said this was their first caucus, and of those, 30 percent voted for Trump. But an even larger chunk ended up splitting between Cruz (23 percent) and Rubio (22 percent).”

Marco Rubio, especially in recent weeks, has also been stressing his faith (what some might term evangelical Catholic), and the importance of the Christian faith generally. So it’s significant that Rubio did almost as well among evangelicals as he did generally — just a two-point difference. A key moment may have been last Thursday. National Review‘s David French credited Rubio’s surge to that “profound moment” the candidate took on an atheist at an Iowa townhall. “It was not just a defense of faith,” French wrote, “but a declaration that the Christian faith champions the virtues vital to our nation.” Rubio’s response went viral. It’s worth a re-look:

Donald Trump fought an uphill battle to garner evangelical support. He won the endorsement of Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., among other evangelical leaders. Even Monday morning, Trump was boasting of the “love” evangelicals have for him and that “evangelicals really do get me.” For all the talk today of Trump “underperforming, big time” in Iowa, consider this:  It is no small thing that a thrice-married, recently Democrat, recently abortion-supporting New Yorker who accidentally put money in a communion plate and called a certain epistle “Two Corinthians” earned 22 percent of the evangelical vote. A year ago, one would have considered that a miracle.

And given the bluster, bravado and blistering words we’ve come to expect from the billionaire, his concession speech also suggested a touch of divine intervention. Even the Huffington Post and Washington Post called it “surprising.” “We finished second,” he said, “and I want to tell you something: I’m just honored. I’m really honored.” He congratulated Cruz and “all the incredible candidates, including Mike Huckabee, who has become a really good friend of mine.” He expressed his love of Iowa, even suggesting “I think I might come here and buy a farm.” (Donald and Melania as farmers? Who wouldn’t watch that reality show?)

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