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Iowa’s Next Santorum-Vote Surprise

Four years ago, Newt Gingrich led national polls [1] of Republican voters, nearly 28 percent of whom indicated they supported the former House speaker. Mitt Romney was close behind at 24 percent, however, and in Iowa polls of prospective caucus-goers [2] suggested that Ron Paul might beat them both—Paul getting 22 percent, Romney 21 percent, Gingrich 14 percent.

The polls were wrong. Gingrich would only win South Carolina and his home state of Georgia. He didn’t even make the top three in Iowa [3], where Romney and Paul placed second and third—and the surprise victor, who nine days before had been polling behind Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann as well as Paul, Romney, and Gingrich, was Rick Santorum. He, not Gingrich, would be Romney’s toughest competitor for the rest of the campaign, winning 10 more contests after New Hampshire.

This year Donald Trump polls better than Gingrich did in 2012, both nationally and in the early states, and no establishment contender in 2016 has the support that Romney did last time. But Santorum’s 2012 upset might still tell us something about what to expect on February 1. Santorum’s performance showed that Iowa voters were even more focused on social issues than pollsters and pundits had realized. Religious right caucus-goers voted their consciences, and when they asked themselves whether Romney or Gingrich or Ron Paul best represented their views, they disregarded the choices that polls and the media had given them and voted for Santorum instead.

This could be good news for Ben Carson, whose moribund campaign actually polls better in Iowa today than Santorum’s did nine days before his win in 2012. Then again, Trump has advantages this year that Gingrich did not have in 2012—most importantly, the endorsements of Phyllis Schlafly and Sarah Palin. But if the Santorum vote in 2012 really was a conscience vote, I have a hard time believing that Iowa evangelicals in their hearts of hearts identify more with Trump than with Carson. These voters—as their support for Santorum in 2012 and Huckabee in 2008 demonstrates—know who they are and what they believe in. They are rock steady, not swayed by media buzz or the showbiz glitz of a modern presidential campaign. They are also organized: their churches and religious groups are ready-made battalions that translate directly into political strength.

The left-wing canard about the religious right is that its adherents are—as a Washington Post reporter famously wrote [4]—“largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.” And among the non-evangelical right, there’s a reluctance to admit that Christian conservatives really do have fundamental differences with other Republicans [5]. Elite centrists in the GOP who do indeed recognize the religious right as a separate species from themselves nevertheless tend to perceive the evangelical vote as basically populist rather than distinctly values-driven.

Left, right, and center thus all run the risk of underestimating how focused and distinct Christian conservatives can be, especially in an environment like the Iowa caucuses, where such voters predominate in numbers great enough that they need not worry about coalition-building. The Iowa caucuses are, in fact, practically the only opportunity these voters have to “send a message” in national politics—to testify in action to what they really believe.

That doesn’t mean that a surge for Ben Carson (or much further down in the polls, Mike Huckabee or Santorum himself) is the only possible outlet for evangelicals’ political intensity. My guess is that there is at least as good a chance that this intensity will lead to a bigger than expected turnout for Ted Cruz, who seems to have been successful at positioning himself as a plausible avatar for the religious right. An unexpectedly big win for Cruz could put a dead stop to Donald Trump’s momentum, robbing him of the limelight in which he has flourished and dampening, if not overcoming, his support in New Hampshire.

To be sure, the Santorum 2012 vote isn’t the only group that might yield a surprise in Iowa’s caucuses, where turnout is small enough that intensity and organization can trump—if you’ll pardon the expression—media exposure and general polling. Rand Paul has staked his campaign on getting younger and more libertarian [6]Iowans to caucus; he’s confident in his ground operation, and he argues that his voters are not counted by conventional polling.

But if the religious right vote is historically even stronger in Iowa than analysts expect based on polls, the opposite is true of Iowa’s Paul-family vote: in 2012 Ron Paul underperformed in the caucuses relative to his polling beforehand. He had a shot at first place but finished third. No matter how good Rand’s ground operation may be, the supply of libertarian-minded voters in Iowa is simply unlikely to be enough.

Marco Rubio, meanwhile, has to hope that a large slice of Romney’s 2012 Iowa vote (roughly 25 percent of caucus participants) finds Trump and Cruz alike unacceptable—and that those voters pragmatically opt for Rubio instead of Jeb Bush. My hunch, however, is that the conventional wisdom is backwards: Christian conservatives are much more certain about how they want to vote than pundits give them credit for being, while middle-of-the-road Republicans are much more indecisive and impulsive this year.

(For Trump, the worst case scenario would be for the conventional wisdom to be half-right: a rally of electability-focused centrists to Rubio, coupled with stronger-than-expected evangelical support for Cruz. That would almost certainly set up a Cruz-Rubio race for the rest of the primary season, leaving Trump where Gingrich was in 2012.)

Donald Trump has proved all skeptics wrong so far. Maybe he really has changed the nature of Republican presidential politics, such that precedents from years past no longer apply. Maybe. But that notion has yet to be put to the test that counts—in real presidential primaries and caucuses.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Iowa’s Next Santorum-Vote Surprise"

#1 Comment By Kurt Gayle On January 24, 2016 @ 12:26 am

Six months ago (July 17, 2015) Daniel McCarthy posted an article about Donald Trump and the Republican field that included these points:

“How worried should Republicans—and everyone else—be about Donald Trump…Not very…”

“His polling average, even after weeks of hype, is about 10 percent.”

“How many of the Trump ten percent are actually, in any serious way, Donald Trump voters? Maybe half…”

“It’s doubtful that the hardline anti-immigration vote has boomed from the 2 percent support earned by Tom Tancredo in 2008…”

“Every indication so far is that Jeb Bush will annihilate his competition: his fundraising take is beyond anything his rivals can hope to match—even the next two combined—and the heir apparent has led almost every GOP poll since he first indicated he would run.”

#2 Comment By Daniel McCarthy On January 24, 2016 @ 12:47 am

All true, Kurt— [7] for anyone who’d like to read the full story.

Trump has performed better than I expected. Yet I still see a world of difference between pre-primary hype and actual election results, which is why I’ve gone on record ahead of Iowa with my reasons for thinking Cruz or Carson might surprise us. (In Cruz’s case not by winning but by winning big.) I can certainly be wrong, but it seems to me that people who want to predict the future by looking only to early polling—or their own preferences—are making some mistakes of another kind.

#3 Comment By sps On January 24, 2016 @ 1:18 am

“My guess is that there is at least as good a chance that this intensity will lead to a bigger than expected turnout for Ted Cruz, who seems to have been successful at positioning himself as a plausible avatar for the religious right. An unexpectedly big win for Cruz could put a dead stop to Donald Trump’s momentum, robbing him of the limelight in which he has flourished and dampening, if not overcoming, his support in New Hampshire.”

That’s one possible scenario and not an illogical one since religious Right began to flex their muscles in Iowa (especially in the western part of the state) in 1988. Cruz does have the same institutional support from the religious Right as Bush II, Huckabee and Santorum did. However, looking at the latest polls and just from an instinctive feel, one wonders if the religious Right machine in Iowa and elsewhere is finally sputtering out. If even Liberty U students are more infatuated with Trump than Cruz, their natural candidate, I can imagine their elders, not just in Iowa but elsewhere in the Midwest and especially the South, might well be too. We’ll see. The higher the turnout, the better it is for Trump.

#4 Comment By Kurt Gayle On January 24, 2016 @ 1:43 am

Fair enough, Daniel.

#5 Comment By blimbax On January 24, 2016 @ 2:23 am

Well, it’s nice that Mr. McCarthy admits he got it wrong before. But what’s the point of an article that makes predictions and explains why they will occur? Doesn’t it make more sense to wait for the even to happen and then to explain it?

This kind of writing just clutters up the discussion, and, as the past experience assembled by Mr. Gayle has demonstrated, is largely irrelevant.

#6 Comment By Buzz Baldrin On January 24, 2016 @ 7:20 am

Most Americans consider the Iowa Republican presidential caucus a joke with the Elmer-Gantry winner its punchline.

More accurate to say that corporate church goers vote their sense of humor, not their consciences. If they had consciences, they would be living the Bible, not thumping it.

Trump can overcome a big loss to the Son of a Preacher Man. Hopefully, he can do it without concessions to the flocks’ war mongering.

I suggest that the most virtuous Evangelicals cast their votes in the Democratic caucus. Defeating the Wicked Witch of the West Wing could redeem them.

#7 Comment By Randal On January 24, 2016 @ 7:34 am

As usual an intelligent and convincing case from McCarthy.

Those who, like me, see Trump as the only realistic hope for any kind of new thinking in the US Presidency can only hope that he is wrong.

#8 Comment By TB On January 24, 2016 @ 8:39 am

McCarthy: “Christian conservatives know their own hearts and minds…”
_______________________

That can be said about anyone. But the majority votes out of an emotional response.

Trump has tapped the Rage Republican’s longing for a strong leader who will express their roiling frustrations. Those Christian conservatives will be torn between their religious principles and their desire for undifferentiated revenge. They will easily resolve the tension with any number of bible-based excuses.

#9 Comment By TB On January 24, 2016 @ 8:54 am

Cruz: ” “I’m a Christian first, American second, conservative third and Republican fourth.” …
“I’ll tell ya, there are a whole lot of people in this country that feel exactly the same way.”
___________________

The Presidential Oath of Office requires the taker to swear to uphold the Constitution as the highest law of the land. When he places his hand on that bible, Ted will be using it to lie to further what he believes is a higher purpose. The Father of Lies, an entity he devoutly believes to exist, would be proud.

#10 Comment By Acilius On January 24, 2016 @ 11:27 am

Granted that Carson’s supporters at this point are almost entirely drawn from evangelical churches that turn their members out to vote in the caucuses while many of Trump’s supporters are people who have never bothered to vote, I’d say that we should see Carson’s polling numbers as a floor beneath which his actual share of the vote in Iowa is unlikely to fall, while Trump’s numbers are a ceiling above which his share of the Iowa vote is unlikely to rise. So Carson would have a chance of winning even if the vote were held today. A slimmer chance than that of Cruz, Trump, or Rubio to be sure, but a real chance. And who knows what will happen in the next few days that might influence late deciders?

#11 Comment By Mark Bruijn On January 24, 2016 @ 6:18 pm

Trump and Sanders are an American forebringing of things to come in the West now that the middle is falling down in the US and Europe. As a European I believe that the US will set in swing a Western wave of nationalist-populist policies the coming decade if it comes down to a Trump-Sanders race. I hope it will and that the globalist-neo-liberal agenda will be stopped and the peoples of the Western nations will start to prevail over the elites that betrayed them. Starting in the US.
If Iowa Evangelicals cannot understand this is more important then finding someone who has the biggest common ground with you regarding social and religious values and convictions, so be it.

#12 Comment By Rambler89 On January 24, 2016 @ 9:38 pm

All the verbiage boils down to this: Iowa Republicans will go for a religious nut in the primaries even if he hasn’t a chance of winning a general election, or of beating out Trump for the Republican nomination. It means nothing–they’ll still vote for Trump in November over a Democrat.

As a force for winning elections and furthering a reasonable conservatism–or even, now, an unreasonable one–religious Republicanism is as dead as its historic bedmate, big-business Republicanism. Forget Iowa, which is a topic just because it happens to be the next primary. Look at all the erstwhile religious-right states that go for Trump over Cruz. When commonsense conservative voters look at religion, they see absolutely nothing of political importance except: 1) treasonous warmongering and open-borders advocates, 2) an arrogant organization of pederasts and other perversely self-indugent mealymouths—and more treason and open-borders ideology, or 3) the Religious Left (and still more treason and open-borders ideology).

Buzz Baldrin says: “Most Americans consider the Iowa Republican presidential caucus a joke with the Elmer-Gantry winner its punchline.” I love it!

#13 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 25, 2016 @ 1:48 am

An evangelical I met is supporting Cruz because he thinks he shares his faith. He tried to tell me that Sheldon Adelson is also a Christian. This person was by no means illiterate – he was trying to sell books he had written – but was impervious in his faith in Cruz as Presidential savior, even though he was confusing it with faith in God. Sounded to me as dual-minded as gambling supporter Ralph Reed late of the Christian Coaltion, but what do evangelicals like me know, who’ve gone off the reservation? Fool them thrice, at long last, still no shame.

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 25, 2016 @ 1:55 am

Actually Ted was an American first and a Canadian second, or was it the other way around? There are times that being a Christian will conflict with what passes for patriotism – what then? I think he’s already given the answer to that with actions that are along the lines of, “If I’m not for myself, then who?” but more according to The Hill than Hillel.

#15 Comment By Clint On January 25, 2016 @ 11:29 am

That can be said about anyone. But the majority votes out of an emotional response.

The majority many times appear to vote their wallets.

Apparently,Americans are quite emotional about their wallets.

#16 Comment By balconesfault On January 25, 2016 @ 1:05 pm

The left-wing canard about the religious right is that its adherents are…“largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.”

Actually, that quote was specifically about the followers of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, and not the entire religious right.

#17 Comment By TB On January 25, 2016 @ 6:41 pm

Clint responding to my statement that “… But the majority votes out of an emotional response.”

The majority many times appear to vote their wallets.Apparently, Americans are quite emotional about their wallets.
________________________

Nope. They use their embedded assumptions about the two parties which typically occur in childhood via their parents. It can also develop in reaction to experiences from those early years. Paradigmatic shifts do happen, however. The Great Depression moved many from the Republican camp to the Democratic one. The war against Vietnam resulted in a shift away from the GOP by the youth. Many moved back when Reagan exposed how feckless Carter was regarding the economy and the hostages. The most recent migration was away from all things Bush. The last one was so traumatic that this country elected for itself a black man with a scary name and little experience. Each change offered hope.

#18 Comment By Corey F. On January 26, 2016 @ 8:29 am

“The Presidential Oath of Office requires the taker to swear to uphold the Constitution as the highest law of the land. When he places his hand on that bible, Ted will be using it to lie to further what he believes is a higher purpose. The Father of Lies, an entity he devoutly believes to exist, would be proud.”

First, I think Cruz is an oleaginous, pandering opportunist, so I don’t buy any claim on his part to be anything other than “Ted Cruz first.” Secondly, though, the notion that one can be a “Christian first and an American second” is in no way contrary to the Presidential (or any other) Oath of Office. One can recognize the Constitution as the supreme law of the land without any dissimulation or mental reservation and still also recognize that one’s primary citizenship is in the Civitas Dei. There’s that whole bit about rendering unto Caesar, which seems to imply fidelity to the just laws of the governments we serve.

The problem with American Christianity–and American evangelicalism in particular–is that it has long conflated citizenship in the City of Man with the City of God, which leads to a perverse form of baptized American exceptionalism. We would do better as Christians if more of us recognized that our primary allegiance is to the City of God. Such a stance might lead more of us to oppose military interventionism, rank injustice, and bumptious arrogance with regard to the rest of the world. (Of course, this latter is why I thoroughly disbelieve Cruz’s claims to be a “Christian first”; someone who is actually “Christian first” doesn’t make gleeful jokes about making the “sand glow in the dark.”) But the “America first” mentality has lead Christian (neo-)conservatives to take a variety of positions that are both theologically and politically incoherent. Christians of all stripes would be better off recognizing that we have a profoundly counter-cultural witness to offer and as such should not long to be close the heart of power and material success.

#19 Comment By rjnphd On January 26, 2016 @ 12:43 pm

Iowa generally does not pick winners and the myriad polls are often wrong.
we will know (maybe) next week but, given the religious bent of the population, the strength of the ground game and the general mood – Cruz, Trump, Paul in that order. Rubio will underperform.
In New Hampshire – Trump, Kasich, Cruz, with Bush, Christie, Paul and Rubio struggling to crack double digits. But then again, who knows.

#20 Comment By Kurt Gayle On February 2, 2016 @ 12:16 am

Looking at the Republican Iowa Caucus results: Score one for TAC Editor Daniel McCarthy!

Daniel wrote: “(For Trump, the worst case scenario would be for the conventional wisdom to be half-right: a rally of electability-focused centrists to Rubio, coupled with stronger-than-expected evangelical support for Cruz. That would almost certainly set up a Cruz-Rubio race for the rest of the primary season, leaving Trump where Gingrich was in 2012.)”

A good result for those of you who are establishment Republicans, Daniel, but for many of us in Middle America such a “Cruz-Rubio race for the rest of the primary season” would set up our “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” decision re the Republican Party: