As you would imagine, one of the first things I did after returning home last night was cue up the Iowa coverage. For the most part, I surfed back and forth between CNN and Fox most of the night. No MSNBC? I figured that watching MSNBC cover a GOP primary in the Heartland would be something like (insert metaphor of your choice here, something like "watching a Focus on the Family documentary on the life of Elton John").
Lo and behold, one of the first things that I heard after I grabbed my remote was veteran Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, on Fox, talking about the importance of watching several caucus locations in Northwest Iowa. Why? Because those areas were heavily Catholic and that would show how Rick Santorum was faring with Catholic voters as well as with evangelical Protestants.
Wait a minute. There are Catholic voters in Iowa? Who knew?
In general, I thought one of the most interesting themes that ran through much of the night's coverage was the admission by many experts and analysts that it was simplistic to talk about Iowa in terms of "evangelical voters," alone. The real drama in the GOP race is between the party establishment and the so called Anyone-But-Mitt-Romney crowd that is currently voting for Santorum or for Rep. Ron Paul. The evangelicals are part of that scene, but so are working-class and middle-class Catholics. (See this David Brooks column in The New York Times for a concise summary of this issue.)
I was stunned at how many GOP insiders kept stressing the urgent need for Romney to break out of his 25 percent shell. Clearly, if somewhere between 54 and 56 percent of the Iowa caucus voters were self-proclaimed "evangelicals," then Romney's problem is much bigger than any remaining Mormon complications -- since there are already some "evangelicals" voting for him. The "evangelical" issue is not the whole picture.
So how should reporters describe what is happening, when discussing the religion factor? The Times deserves some credit for admirable restraint in this day-after analysis piece that managed to avoid the "evangelical" label altogether. The lede noted:
DES MOINES -- All year long the story of the Republican race for president was Mitt Romney and a rotating cast playing the role of Someone Else. On Tuesday night, Someone Else was played by two candidates: Rick Santorum, the longtime champion of social conservative issues that were supposedly taking a backseat in this jobs-centric presidential race, and Ron Paul, the noninterventionist Texan who represents an almost 180-degree turn from the Republican Party’s direction.
Of course, what unites the Santorum and Paul voters, other than opposition to Romney? The big words here are "culture" and "populism." The fact that Paul's cultural conservatism is appealing to many religious conservatives doesn't hurt, either.
In other words, the Tea Party and the cultural conservatives can share pews rather easily. The issue is what to do with the country club folks.
On that issue, the Times turned to a major Southern Baptist voice for insight:
Still, for now, the intensity of the desire to unseat Mr. Obama may be Mr. Romney’s most important ally, overcoming whatever qualms various strains of conservatives have about him. Surveys of Iowans entering caucus sites on Tuesday night showed that slightly more people thought it most important to choose a candidate that can beat Mr. Obama than one who is a “true conservative.”
“The key is not whether Romney can unite the party, but whether Obama can unite the party,” said Richard Land, the head of the ethics commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. ”And the answer to that is a resounding yes.”
So the lesson there is to look at the wider issues of culture, class and religion -- instead of focusing on a mythical, united, all-powerful "evangelical vote." There is evidence that some folks at the Times did the math last night. Bravo.
Meanwhile, this chunk of a CNN round-up almost turned into a celebration of the futility that surrounds the religious-labels game.
Evangelicals still matter
Evangelicals made up about 60% of the caucus electorate in 2008, but heading into this year's caucuses, polls suggested that the number might be lower. In the closely watched Des Moines Register poll released on Saturday before the vote, just 34% of likely caucus-goers described themselves as "born again" or "fundamentalist Christian."
But according to entrance polls on Tuesday, 57% of those who caucused called themselves evangelical or "born again."
Christian voters showed up but did not rally behind a single candidate like they did in 2008. ... But Santorum, a Catholic and staunch abortion opponent who courted pastors and home-school activists during his campaign, outperformed his opponents and won a third of the evangelical vote. That's a big slice of a crucial Iowa voting bloc that surely helped Santorum to his second-place finish on Tuesday.
Uh, and which voting bloc was that? The "evangelical" bloc, the tiny "fundamentalist" bloc or one of the two "evangelical" blocs? Also, if Santorum got a third of this alleged bloc, where did the other two-thirds go?
Please let us know -- URLs in the comments pages -- if you saw other Iowa coverage that dug into the cultural and wider religious issues, instead of simply focusing on the "evangelical" bloc or blocs that clearly did not vote as a bloc. I have also tried to find URLs for some of the television analysis, which -- shocking -- seemed much more nuanced that most of what I am reading in the major newspapers.
What did you see? What coverage impressed you, when it came time to "get religion," as well as "get culture" and "get class"?
VIDEO: Santorum's "Game on" remarks, opening with a quote from C.S. Lewis?