Nation

Evangelical vote is splintered in Iowa

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, at a religious rally in Iowa in August, has intensely courted evangelicals.
Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, at a religious rally in Iowa in August, has intensely courted evangelicals.

WATERLOO, Iowa — Less than 100 days before the Iowa caucuses, the evangelical Christians who dominate the Republican contest have yet to coalesce behind a presidential candidate — a predicament that could continue to dilute their influence over the first nominating contest.

For decades, evangelicals have unofficially anointed a Republican with their support, typically helping the candidate capture one of the top spots in the caucuses. In most previous presidential cycles, their pick had been obvious: televangelist Pat Robertson in 1988, George W. Bush in 2000, Mike Huckabee in 2008, and Rick Santorum in 2012.

But in this presidential election, where nearly half of the 15-person GOP field is courting the evangelical community in Iowa, no consensus pick has emerged, according to two dozen Iowa operatives, plus activists with the evangelical and Christian home-school movement. A CNN poll showed evangelicals and born-again Christians made up nearly 60 percent of self-identified GOP caucusgoers in 2012.

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“The pastors I talk with feel the country is slipping away, but they are afraid to publicly get involved in the caucuses because they might offend congregants for picking the wrong social conservative,” said Roland Waterman, an evangelical pastor from Dubuque, Iowa, and Christian television show host.

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This year, Huckabee and Santorum are again seeking evangelical support in Iowa, but they find others encroaching on their lane. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is the choice in a World Magazine survey of nationally influential evangelical leaders. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana routinely talks about faith and is courting church leaders in Iowa as often as Republican county chairs.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson recently took the lead in polls of Iowa Republicans overall from Donald Trump, in part because only one-third of the Republicans believe Trump is a committed Christian.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas boasts endorsements from pastors in all 99 Iowa counties. He’s also picked a former pastor to serve as his state director.

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Iowa, Cruz, Jindal, and Huckabee spoke at a gathering of Tea Party movement and evangelical activists in a metal shed at the National Cattle Congress. Only 150 “tea-vangelicals” — as they call themselves — attended, but the candidates still viewed it as a worthwhile stop.

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“I think evangelical Christians are a tremendously important part both of the Iowa caucuses and of the general election nationwide,” Cruz told the Globe.

Sherry Becker, a 49-year-old dental hygienist from Waterloo involved with her church, attended the event. She was sold on Cruz after hearing the senator’s father, Rafael, speak last spring.

“Rafael’s faith story sold me on his son,” said Becker.

Iowa evangelicals who are active in politics say that Cruz has done the most formal and intense outreach to the community — and he is steadily picking up support.

Cruz would have even more support from this group if not for Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister who retains loyalties from his 2008 campaign. Evangelical voters give Jindal credit for trying, but he has not found much success. Santorum, their choice four years ago, is a non-factor this time around.

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But among evangelicals who are not typically active in politics, Carson is by far the favorite. In a recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll, he had the support of nearly one-third of evangelicals. The survey showed other candidates splitting the rest of the evangelical vote.

‘The pastors I talk with feel the country is slipping away, but they are afraid to publicly get involved in the caucuses because they might offend congregants for picking the wrong social conservative.’

Roland Waterman, evangelical pastor from Dubuque 

“Carson’s support is wide but soft right now, and less than a quarter of likely caucus-goers have made up their minds,” said Kedron Bardwell, a Simpson College professor who researches the intersection of evangelicals and Iowa politics. “I expect at least one other new poll leader among Iowans and evangelicals before February.”

The community’s indecision is complicated by its waning impact on the presidential nomination process.

In the past, a candidate who received the backing of evangelicals would win one of the top places in the Iowa caucuses, catching one of what insiders call the coveted “three tickets” out of Iowa and on to compete in the New Hampshire primary eight days later. It’s there that evangelical candidates often face trouble: Only 22 percent of GOP voters in New Hampshire identify themselves as evangelicals.

As a result, the overall performances of evangelical-backed candidates in recent presidential cycles have been lackluster. Only one evangelical-backed caucus candidate in the last 30 years has gone on to win the GOP nomination and eventually the White House: George W. Bush. Iowa’s more moderate Republicans, such as Governor Terry Branstad, have battled with the group over its influence in the party as a result.

Despite this, many candidates still view the evangelical community as their best shot to a path to the nomination.

There have been several faith forums in Iowa catering to evangelicals, but strategists say the real work is behind closed doors, navigating personal connections and guesswork. Among the most prized group of evangelicals in Iowa are the oft-reclusive families who home-school their children.

“Home-schoolers, by definition, don’t want to be on a list and don’t want to be contacted,” said Bill Gustoff, a Des Moines attorney who has served as the political gatekeeper to Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators. “But if a candidate can identify them and win them over, they are the most loyal and passionate supporters they will ever find.”

Huckabee gained traction among this community in 2008, and it helped him win the caucuses. This time around, Huckabee is looking to expand his support among evangelicals.

“Now a lot of those folks are evangelicals, but a lot of what I would call even the activist evangelicals, you know they didn’t necessarily line up with me,” Huckabee said.

“Now hopefully they are smarter now and they will this time.”

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell, or click here subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign.