Evangelicals may be an increasingly underrepresented group in American society, but their political punch should not be underestimated. In fact, evangelical voters in Iowa historically set the tone for presidential primaries — and the 2024 election season will be no different.
Less than four months from now, Republican presidential candidates at the Iowa caucuses will compete for support from Christian conservatives, whose traditionally high turnout and support for Christian values in public life has long affected caucus results.
Iowa has been the focus of presidential primary strategies for years. Over half of Iowa caucus winners have gone on to receive their party’s nomination for the presidency since 1972. And voting patterns indicate that, even to have a chance at capturing the party nomination, candidates must first perform well among evangelicals.
Evangelicals made up over two-thirds of Republican caucus-goers in 2016, according to entrance polling. Thirty-four percent of them voted for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) (the largest share of the evangelical vote received by any GOP candidate at the time), who then went on to win the Iowa caucuses. Several other candidates who won the evangelical vote in Iowa went on to win the state, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012. And although these candidates did not ultimately become GOP party nominees, their success in Iowa nevertheless hinged on evangelical support.
Concerned by the direction our nation is headed, evangelicals are certain to turn out in large numbers this election cycle. There is no question that issues regarding gender ideology, religious freedom and abortion will give them ample motivation to show up at the polls.
They can no longer endure watching rogue teachers’ unions teach children that they are inherently bad because of their race and force radical gender ideology upon students behind their parents’ backs. As of March 2023, more than half of Iowa adults supported bills that would ban teaching children theories about gender identity at all. Fifty-four percent said they favor legislation banning classroom instruction about sexual orientation.
Serious Republican candidates have already begun differentiating themselves from the pack by championing the values and issues driving Christian voters this cycle. In early 2023, GOP candidates gathered in Iowa to speak directly to voters about their commitments to religious liberty, the dignity of human life and solving the human crisis at the southern border.
This month, 10 Republican presidential contenders pitched themselves once more to thousands of likely caucus-goers and evangelical voters at Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Presidential Town Hall in Des Moines. They shared their positions on the issues of human life, the administrative state, the role of federal law enforcement and the enduring intraparty debate over traditional conservatism versus populism.
Soon, it will be up to caucus-goers to decide which ones they think will follow through on their promises.
Around the same time Republican candidates were turning their attention and efforts toward Iowa, the Democratic National Committee was moving to end 50 years of Iowa holding its first-in-the-nation nominating contest. South Carolina is now the DNC’s favorite to begin the process. Although the DNC claims to have chosen the Palmetto State for the sake of a more diverse electorate, its decision will further alienate Middle American and working-class voters with Christian values.
Whatever happens at the Iowa caucuses will change the course of subsequent primary elections across the nation, depending on which underperforming candidates inevitably drop out of the race. Evangelical caucus-goers have the power and the responsibility to support a values-focused candidate to shape the rest of the presidential race.
Timothy Head is the executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition.
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