Dr. Richard Land

What Iowa Says About the Religious Right

January 6, 2012

​The Iowa caucuses have again produced upheaval.

​The Iowa caucuses have again produced upheaval. The 2008 contest saw the Huckabee phenomenon and announced the Obama earthquake that toppled the Clinton dynasty. Now the 2012 caucuses have put former Sen. Rick Santorum near the front of the Republican presidential pack and demonstrated that the "religious right"—Roman Catholic and evangelical social conservatives—is alive and flourishing in the American body politic.

Polling from CNN shows that 57% of Iowa's caucus participants were self-identified evangelicals, as in 2008, and they voted 32% for Rick Santorum. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry each received 14% of evangelical votes, with Ron Paul (18%) and Michele Bachmann (6%) taking all but a smattering of the remainder. While Mr. Santorum failed to match Mike Huckabee's 45% share of the evangelical vote in 2008, he did equal George W. Bush's 2000 draw.

Mr. Santorum is the truest of true social conservatives. In the House and then in the Senate, he was always willing to fight the battles closest to social conservatives' hearts, even when he was virtually alone in doing so. His Iowa showing guarantees that the upcoming primaries will offer a great debate between the Republican establishment on one side and the social conservatives and tea party types on the other.

When Iowa caucus participants were asked to identify the most important quality in a candidate, 31% said "Can Beat Obama," 25% said "True Conservative," and 24% said "Strong Moral Character." Almost half of voters (48%) considered Mr. Romney the likeliest to defeat President Obama, while only 13% of voters put Mr. Santorum in that category. When it came to identifying a true conservative, however, 36% chose Mr. Santorum while only 1% chose Mr. Romney.

These polling responses clearly lay out the upcoming challenges for Messrs. Romney and Santorum. Mr. Romney needs to convince Republican primary voters that he can be trusted with crucial responsibilities such as judicial nominations. Mr. Santorum, on the other hand, needs to convince voters that he can appeal to independents and win a general election campaign against President Obama.

Social conservatives deeply distrust President Obama, whom they perceive to be the most liberal and socially radical president ever. They strongly believe that another four years of his policies will permanently harm the cultural, economic and social fabric of our country. They believe President Obama when he says he wants to "remake" the nation into what they perceive to be a European-style entitlement society, while they desperately want to restore America as an opportunity society.

For these reasons, evangelicals are certainly concerned about "electability." Many are following the late William F. Buckley's famous dictum that he's "for the most conservative candidate who can be elected." Hence the importance of Mr. Santorum demonstrating his ultimate electability not only to the establishment but to evangelicals as well.

Will evangelicals support Mr. Romney if he is the nominee? Yes, and by substantial percentages. Never underestimate the unique ability of President Obama to unify social conservatives, of every faith tradition, around his eventual opponent.

Will Mr. Romney's Mormonism be a negative factor for evangelicals? It will for some, but remember that in Iowa the 60% of voters who identified themselves as evangelicals gave 42% of their votes to a Mormon (Mr. Romney) or a Catholic (Messrs. Santorum and Gingrich), while giving only 38% of their vote to fellow Protestants (Messrs. Perry and Paul and Mrs. Bachmann). So much for narrow denominational prejudices.

One should note also that several prominent evangelicals, such as former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, are enthusiastically supporting Mr. Romney.

Even Pastor Robert Jeffress, who may be Mr. Romney's most vocal evangelical critic and last fall referred to Mormonism as a "cult," has stated: "If it comes down to Romney versus Obama I'm voting for Romney." I've heard the same sentiment from hundreds of evangelical pastors over the past two months. It's not that their stance on Mormonism is softening, but that their distrust and fear of Mr. Obama's policies are increasing.

By Richard Land

Originally Published in The Washington Post