SHELDON, Iowa – Republican presidential caucus meetings open with a prayer in this northwest Iowa town, a place where faith and politics go hand in hand.
“Then we’ll pledge allegiance to the flag,” said the Rev. Marcus Moffitt, who has led Calvary Baptist Church for nearly a quarter-century in this strongly conservative, deeply Christian corner of the state. Moffitt estimated 90 percent of his congregation would caucus on Feb. 1, and likely none for Democrats.
It is a distinct and influential demographic that more than one Republican presidential candidate has mobilized for victory in the state’s nation-leading presidential contest.
This year’s Iowa caucuses feature vastly different party dynamics. The Democratic front-runner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has consistently led in polls here despite an energetic challenge by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
On the Republican side, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has recently risen as Iowa front-runner — in no small part thanks to frequent, direct appeals to the state’s evangelical voters. But the GOP race remains much more unpredictable both here and nationwide, as Cruz and a clutch of other candidates contend with the phenomenon of Donald Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s attempt to rally the Republican establishment.
Democratic and Republican candidates have been regular visitors in Iowa for months now. With less than a month to go, the race is intensifying: In the last week, Cruz, Rubio, Clinton, Sanders and most of the other candidates have made multiple Iowa stops, with many more planned. Saturday afternoon brought a Trump rally to Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom, where rocker Buddy Holly played his last show on Feb. 2, 1959. TV airwaves are coated with candidates’ commercials, and engaged Iowans say their phones are ringing every night with calls from the campaigns.
“The truth is that most Iowans don’t start to think that seriously about this decision until right about now,” said Susan Heun, a Catholic school employee from Des Moines who came out last Monday morning to meet Ohio Gov. John Kasich at a West Des Moines coffee shop. Heun’s current favorites are Kasich and Rubio: “A lot of us are still up for grabs.”
Iowa Republicans just now tuning into Cruz will find a candidate who’s unabashedly wrapping himself in his Christian faith. His father, Rafael Cruz, a Christian pastor, has been campaigning throughout the state for his son for months.
At a town-hall meeting last Monday night in Winterset, about 40 miles southwest of Des Moines, Ted Cruz, a Southern Baptist, shared the stage with one of his most prominent backers — James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and an icon in the decades-old movement to fuse evangelical Christianity with U.S. politics.
“If you don’t begin every day on your knees asking God for his wisdom and support, I don’t believe you’re fit to do this job,” said Cruz, as Dobson nodded approvingly and the standing-room-only crowd cheered.
The rally featured repeated professions of faith, tributes to Christianity, a cry of “Amen!” The family band that opened sang songs with lyrics endorsing school prayer, man-woman marriage and Cruz’s candidacy. U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a Cruz backer, vowed that, “God will produce a leader to raise up the soul of America.” Dobson asked Cruz how Iowans could pray for him, prompting a long and detailed answer.
Cruz even looked to the Lord for a self-deprecating punchline, joking that the fact his daughters resemble their mother more than him is “proof that God is a benevolent God.”
In a 30-minute onstage conversation with Cruz, Dobson contended that recent national losses by GOP presidential candidates were due to evangelical voters staying home on Election Day.
“Well, Dr. Dobson, you’re absolutely right,” said Cruz, adding that “the key to winning in 2016 is very simple: We have to bring back to the polls the millions of conservatives who stayed home. We have to awaken and energize the body of Christ.”
Iowa’s Pat Robertson moment
It’s unclear whether counting on evangelical voters is a sound strategy for winning the general election in November. But it’s a proven way for Republicans to win in Iowa.
The last two winners, Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008, both worked to consolidate evangelical support. Minnesota’s former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann made a similar play in 2012. Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll in 2011 largely on the strength of conservative Christian voters, only to see her support collapse and get scooped up largely by Santorum in the caucuses.
Gina Noll is a veteran GOP political consultant from Des Moines who got her start working on George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Iowa campaign. She dates the beginnings of evangelical influence in GOP caucuses to that year, when televangelist Pat Robertson unexpectedly finished a strong second to Bob Dole.
“That activated a new electorate that plugged into the caucuses, who have stayed ever since,” said Noll, who supports Kasich this year.
Cruz is far from the only GOP candidate trying to appeal to Iowa’s Christian conservatives.
“We were founded on this unique and powerful principle, that the rights we have — chiefly life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that those rights do not come from the government. They come from God,” Rubio said at a Tuesday town hall meeting in Mason City, where a capacity crowd crammed into the meeting room of a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel.
Two days later, Rubio’s campaign released a TV ad titled “Faith” that makes the appeal even more explicit. “Our goal is eternity — the ability to live alongside our creator for all time,” Rubio, a Roman Catholic, says in the ad.
Winning in Iowa is no guarantee of winning the party nomination, as Huckabee and Santorum — who are both running again this year — learned the hard way.
“We still have an extraordinary number of pastors and evangelical people supporting us,” Huckabee said at a campaign stop Tuesday in Charles City, not far south of the Minnesota border. But the roughly 20 people who showed up for the former Arkansas governor at a rundown VFW hall were dwarfed by the crowds turning out for Trump, Cruz and Rubio.
‘A very decadent country’
About 50 people make up the small congregation at Sheldon’s Calvary Baptist, meeting in a Gothic Revival-style church, bought several decades ago from a Lutheran congregation, that sits in a residential neighborhood.
The town of about 5,000 people is 25 miles up the road from Orange City, which the nonpartisan political data compiler Crowdpac.com in December declared the sixth most conservative U.S. city.
Last Sunday night, the Rev. Moffitt, his wife, Jeanne, and several members of the congregation sat for an hourlong interview before an evening service. They see an American society in decline, led by a president who Moffitt called “the great deceiver.”
“We live in a very decadent country now,” Moffitt said, citing legal abortion, same-sex marriage and out-of-wedlock births, as prime examples.
Eight years ago, the Moffitts volunteered for Huckabee. Four years ago, he caucused for Bachmann and she for Santorum. This year, they and their fellow congregation members are gravitating toward Cruz.
“They all claim they’re Christian, or most of them have,” said Neil Hash, who works at a local custom cylinder manufacturer. “What it’s boiled down to for me is that Ted Cruz has a stronger foundation on that.”
Church members often talk politics in Wednesday night group meetings, and Moffitt said he occasionally does so from the pulpit.
If Cruz pulls off an Iowa win, it’s likely to be fueled not just by evangelical fervor but also his appeal to other fragments of the Republican coalition. He has called for vast reductions in federal spending and talked tough on terrorism, immigration and gun rights.
“I’m what you’d call a whole house conservative,” said Bruce Branson, a semiretired pastor and longtime GOP activist who also attends Calvary. “Which means I not only favor the social conservative side of things but also the economic conservative side. And Ted Cruz is the one who has answered my questions on both sides of that in the most conservative manner.”
What do evangelicals make of Trump, the blustery billionaire businessman who has upended the entire Republican contest? A number of national polls have shown Trump peeling off at least some evangelical support from the more traditional candidates.
“From what I’ve read and seen, he’s a very vulgar man — coarse, wicked language. That’s a real negative for me,” Moffitt said. “We talked about this several weeks ago as a church, and I said I’d hate to see Trump come out of Iowa with a big boost.”
Branson agreed — to a point.
“He says something that’s good, but then he’ll turn right around and wipe it out with some vulgar comment or some hateful comment,” Branson said. “Would I vote for him if he was the one running against Hillary? Absolutely.”