Why Iowa’s evangelical voters matter

Every four or eight years, evangelicals and Mass-attending Catholics are handed a moment in which they uniquely impact American presidential politics: the Iowa caucuses.

When I say “evangelicals and Mass-attending Catholics,” I have a very specific set of people in mind, known primarily by this marker: They attend church of whatever denomination at least twice a month, at least 11 months a year. If that’s not you, then you don’t count when I write “evangelicals and Mass-attending Catholics.” No offense, but I’m not talking about you.

My definition marks out the cohort of “real” faith-based voters. Their various theological arguments confuse and confound most mainstream media reporters and center-left and pure left-wing punditry. But these faith-based voters are a bloc within the GOP electorate that is large and fundamental, and especially consequential in Iowa.

Sometimes it is split. Sometimes it is unified. The result of their collective vote in the Republican Iowa caucuses does not guarantee how their cousins will cast ballots across the country, but it is an opening chapter in the book of every campaign that can be written on faith-based voters and that year’s contest.

Recently, a clip of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio talking about faith has been zinging around the evangelical deep web. (This web isn’t very “deep” or “hidden” really, just not accessed much by most mainstream media reporters.) Black-bag job political operators are also using social media to distribute stories about Donald Trump. Pastor Rafael Cruz, Sen. Ted Cruz’s charismatic preacher dad, is in the state, as are the hardcore Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee operators from previous caucus-winners’ organizations. They are still faithful and trying to energize the voting “believing” community.

Donald Trump says he is doing great with evangelicals and some polls show that he is. But there are far, far more evangelicals and Mass-attending Catholics in the state than there will be caucus-goers a week from tonight. Which ones of the evangelicals and Mass-attending Catholics will leave their homes and head out into the cold? Chances are high they are the ones whose pastors and priests encourage them to do so. And which pastors and priests do that? Those concerned about the threats to religious liberty in the country.

My wife and I — in California’s Palm Desert for a rare weekend away from the vast political theater/marathon that is 2016 — attended The Rock Church there on Sunday, led in worship by Pastor Eddie Elguera, a gifted preacher (and three-time world skate-boarding champion back in the day). There was terrific message and wonderful music. It was as diverse a congregation as pretty much any in America — and not a word about politics. That’s the way it was for 95% of church services in the United States this Sunday, I will guess.

That’s the way it is in most churches, whatever denomination, whatever Sunday.

But in Iowa, especially western Iowa, in January of a presidential year, there is a different tradition: one of intense political activism, especially in this era when religious liberty is felt, not thought. Ordinary Americans who feel not an ounce of ill-will toward anyone but who hold deep-seated beliefs about what their faith obliges them to believe and how to act feel under attack, and thus, approach this cycle with even more urgency than in years past.

There are of course disagreements among these believers, but for the first time there are serious questions raised about whether differences in belief will lead to differences in treatment by the government, and not just on matters of tax-exempt status.

The pastors who are most concerned about these issues of religious liberty didn’t just start talking about the issue in January, or just begin bringing the urgency of the choice of candidates before their congregations this week or next.

It has been, for them and their flocks, an enduring theme for a long time, a growing, deeply ominous trend and theme, and a week from today they get to act on that concern.

This is why I am doubly suspicious of polling this political cycle, and not just because Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky was supposed to lose by 4 points and won by 9 in November of 2015, or because the conservatives in Great Britain and before that, Israel, were supposed to lose but won in the spring of 2015, or because Sen. Tom Cotton in Arkansas in November of 2014 was supposed to be neck-and-neck with then-incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor but won by 17 points, and many others blew out their projected margins of victory at the same time.

I’m doubly suspicious of the polls because not only are people afraid of ISIS and for their own government, they don’t really believe in guarantees of privacy and hesitate to speak candidly with strangers. The “Shy Tory” phenomenon surfaced first in Great Britain in 1992, when voters in the United Kingdom returned Prime Minister John Major to office in a huge upset that pollsters later explained by arguing they had been “shy” in stating a preference for the, well, not-very-hip Major.

I don’t know many “Shy Trump Voters,” but perhaps they are legion. Perhaps there is a horde of Jeb voters waiting to swoop but reluctant to tell anyone they favor the slow-and-steady former governor. Who bets on the tortoise after all? Anything is possible this year, so vast are the changes brought about by President Obama, the reaction to them, and the electric impact of social media networks that did not exist with anywhere near the impact or reach four years ago.

But evangelicals in Iowa are a known, huge force (as are their pro-life, Mass-attending Catholic brothers and sisters). Sen. Ted Cruz knows who they are. He knows their pastors. He’s been in their churches. A lot.

I’ve made many correct predictions over the past many years, and swung and missed many times as well. If I bat .400, it’s Pundit Hall of Fame along with those Ted Williams-like numbers. My radio show has been, is and will remain Switzerland for all would-be GOP nominees. All are welcome and I’m not endorsing this year until I have to vote in the California primary in June, and maybe not even then, and I’ll keep asking all the candidates the toughest questions I can both on the radio and at the CNN-Salem Radio debates on February 25 and March 10.

I think the “Trump tsunami” is real and he will win in New Hampshire. But I am betting on Sen. Cruz in Iowa because I think enough pastors have been persuaded that Ted Cruz understands their concerns and their hopes, shares their vision and their values, can sing their songs and knows their message.

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Why Iowa's evangelical voters are critical

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