Jan 11, 2024 - Politics

How Trump has gained support with Iowa evangelicals

Illustration of the presidential seal as a halo around Donald Trump.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios. Photos: Brandon Bell/Getty Images, Mandel Ngan/AFP

Donald Trump seems to have locked down a majority of the evangelical Iowan vote in this year's Republican caucuses, even as local leaders have tried to steer them toward his competitor, Ron DeSantis.

Driving the news: Among evangelicals, Trump led DeSantis and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley with 51% support in a December Iowa poll for the Des Moines Register/NBC — up from 43% in October.

  • That's even though Bob Vander Plaats, the state's most prominent evangelical leader and head of The Family Leader — and Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is popular among evangelicals — are backing DeSantis.
  • Vander Plaats has correctly picked Iowa Caucus GOP winners since 2008.

Why it matters: The evangelical voting bloc remains a key group for Republicans seeking to win the Iowa caucuses.

What's happening: Several of Trump's actions while in office have appealed to these voters, including those who did not initially support him, said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, a prominent evangelical group.

Plus: Vander Plaats told Axios that evangelicals view the "system" as being weaponized against Trump and some see their support as an act of loyalty.

  • They also believe that Trump is willing to "fight" for them in a country increasingly "anti-American, more anti-Constitution and even more anti-religious liberty" under Biden, Scheffler said.

The other side: Vander Plaats told Axios he endorsed DeSantis despite Trump's polling lead because he's unsure if the former president can beat Biden in the general election.

  • He said he's not a "kingmaker," but shares his thoughts because of the exposure he gets to the candidates.
  • "I just think it's almost negligent for me to say, 'I took this all in, but I don't have a clue which way I would go,'" he said.

The intrigue: Endorsements won't "make or break" an election, but they can help a candidate gain a few percentage points, especially from someone with past influence like Vander Plaats, said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State.

  • Scheffler with Iowa Faith & Freedom disagrees, arguing no one has been influential enough to sway the direction of the caucuses.
  • He referenced former Gov. Terry Branstad, who urged Iowans in 2016 not to pick Ted Cruz because of his ethanol stances, but Cruz ended up winning the caucuses.

What they're saying: Another reason Vander Plaats' endorsement could be falling on deaf ears is the presence of a different kind of evangelical voter: those who attend church less and may identify with the twice-divorced business entrepreneur, as the New York Times reports.

  • "He's the only savior I can see," said Cydney Hatfield, of Lohrville, an Iowa town of 381 people told the Times.
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