Front-runners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stumbled out of the gate in Iowa on Feb. 1 while the evangelical Christian vote among Republicans split primarily three ways in the first stage of the 2016 race for the White House.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won a plurality of evangelical votes in defeating Trump in the Iowa Republican caucuses despite the outspoken billionaire businessman’s lead in the polls. Cruz won nearly 28 percent of the caucus votes, while Trump gained 24 percent, according to The New York Times. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida closed fast to achieve 23 percent of the votes.
In the Democratic caucuses, Clinton – the former first lady and secretary of state – apparently won by a slim margin over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Clinton received 49.9 percent to Sanders’ 49.6 percent, according to The Times in an afternoon report on Feb. 2.
Photo courtesy of Tim Trudeau
Approximately 1,500 Republicans, including many evangelical Christians, attended the GOP caucus in Boone, Iowa.
As a result, the delegate count for the GOP nomination was eight for Cruz and seven apiece for Trump and Rubio. Famed surgeon Ben Carson won three delegates with 9.3 percent of the votes, while Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky (4.5 percent) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (2.8 percent) gained one delegate each.
For the Democrats, Clinton was credited with 23 delegates, Sanders with 21, The Times reported.
The candidates in each party will next face off in the first primary, which will be Feb. 9 in New Hampshire.
Iowa Republicans identifying themselves as “born-again Christians” turned out in even greater numbers than four years ago, increasing their share of the GOP caucus-goers by seven points to 64 percent. Of those self-identified Christians, Cruz won 34 percent of the vote, according to entrance polls, NPR reported. Trump and Rubio won 22 and 21 percent, respectively, of those voters.
Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, urged evangelicals in an opinion piece for Fox News to participate in the election process this year.
Published on the day of the Iowa caucuses, Floyd’s column said, “If every eligible evangelical voter would cast a ballot in each of our local, state and federal elections, will the United States be a better place? I’m convinced that it would.”
A record 186,000 Republicans participated in the Iowa caucuses, with 45 percent attending for the first time, according to NPR.
The road to Iowa was marked by division among evangelicals and their leaders regarding the crowded Republican field.
Despite that, the results in the GOP caucuses were, “on the whole, good news for evangelical voters,” said Bruce Ashford, provost and professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The reason for such an assessment, Ashford said, was because of the strength of support for Cruz and Rubio, “the two major contenders who have demonstrated evangelical conviction on the issues of abortion, gay marriage and religious liberty.” Another aspect of the good news for evangelicals was, he said, the results “reveal weaker-than-expected support for Donald Trump, whose credentials are questionable on those very issues.”
Hunter Baker, associate professor of political science at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., said Cruz’s win over Trump “was impressive and undermined Trump’s personal narrative of being a winner.”
Baker particularly noted the popularity of Cruz and Rubio among evangelicals.
“They both have supporters among evangelicals,” he said. “They both also have other kinds of supporters. Cruz has the limited government crowd. Marco Rubio is probably getting the Chamber of Commerce.”
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and others have expressed incredulity at evangelical support of Trump, whose multiple marriages, past support of abortion rights and recent anti-religious freedom comments would seem to make him a questionable candidate for backing by conservative Christians.
Pro-life leaders also have challenged support among their allies for Trump. A group of female pro-life leaders – including Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List and Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America – sent an open letter Jan. 26 that urged Iowa Republicans to vote for anyone but Trump.
Yet, well-known evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, and former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin have endorsed Trump, while Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, has spoken for Trump in the media and on the campaign trail.
Cruz gained endorsements from Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.
“Falwell’s embrace of Trump,” Baker said, “looks a bit like buying high” just before a stock takes a sudden dip. “That low should be short-lived, though, if Trump goes on to win New Hampshire as is currently expected,” he said.
“The big question for me is whether Marco Rubio comes out of Iowa on a rocket after crushing expectations,” Baker said. After the results were announced, Rubio “took the stage and spoke in as authentic a Christian voice as you will hear. I believe his support among evangelicals is only going to grow,” Baker said.
“The media have focused upon Trump’s Falwell endorsement and Cruz’s courting of ‘Christian America’ conservatives, but Marco Rubio is quietly gaining the support of many evangelical leaders with immense personal credibility.”
Ashford, who did not comment on Trump’s positions, contrasted the stances of Cruz and Rubio with those of Clinton.
“She is pro-abortion; Rubio and Cruz are staunchly pro-life,” he said. “She is a vocal proponent of same-sex marriage; Cruz and Rubio believe marriage is a unique institution, designed by God for the purposes of uniting one man and one woman. She is a tepid supporter of religious liberty; Rubio and Cruz make religious freedom a major plank in their platforms.
“A significant and ongoing concern for evangelicals is to nominate a candidate who, on the one hand, is a supporter of life, marriage and religious liberty and who, on the other hand, has enough of a broad appeal to be elected in a head-to-head race with Clinton or Sanders in November,” Ashford said.
Ronnie Floyd, in his opinion piece for Fox News urging Christians to participate in the political process, wrote, “Think about an America where 60 million Jesus-loving, God-fearing men and women stepped into their voting booths this election season – not with the intention of electing a ‘Christian president’ but with the intention of faithfully living out biblical values in the public square.”
In a column posted with Baptist Press the same day, Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, urged Southern Baptists and other Christians not only to take part in the election but to be careful what they say and to keep a biblical perspective.
“Our hope and trust is ultimately in the Lord,” he wrote.
“When we know we have worked in the processes and prayed for the Lord’s will to be done, when all is concluded, we have the peace to trust the Lord who is sovereign over all affairs.”
Winning the Iowa caucuses – conducted in more than 1,680 meetings across the state – is important but no guarantee of the nomination. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania won in Iowa in 2008 and 2012, respectively, but neither ended up being the GOP nominee.
Huckabee and Santorum were among six Republican candidates who received fewer than 2 percent of the votes Monday night. Afterward, Huckabee announced he was suspending his campaign.
On the Democratic side, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley announced the suspension of his effort after receiving less than 1 percent of the vote.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)