Evangelicals in Iowa: Making sense of what happened in the first voting of 2016

Is your head still spinning?

I'll admit it: My head's still spinning as I try to make sense of what just happened among evangelical voters in the Iowa caucuses.

For months, we've heard about polls indicating that brash, foul-mouthed Donald Trump had become the darling of conservative Christians. (Whaaaaatttt?)

But Ted Cruz — not Trump — emerged victorious in the Hawkeye State, with Marco Rubio a close third.

What role did religion play?

Across the river in Nebraska, here's how the Omaha World-Herald described the outcome:

DES MOINES — The church vote proved stronger than a billionaire’s legion of angry fans Monday as Ted Cruz won the Iowa Republican caucuses.
Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, relied upon strong evangelical support to defeat Donald Trump, the flamboyant New Yorker whose entire political persona is built on the idea he is a winner and not a loser.
In fact, Trump barely held on to his second-place finish in the face of a surge by Marco Rubio, a Florida senator who many believe is now in a good position to unify the establishment wing of the Republican Party behind his candidacy.
“It’s a nice, nice bump for Cruz and it certainly puts Trump in the position of being a loser not a winner,” said Dave Redlawsk, a political scientist at Rutgers University who studies the Iowa caucuses.
“But the real story may be Rubio. He did better than anticipated,” said Redlawsk. “It suggests a big move to Rubio at the end.”

In its lead front-page story, The New York Times declared that Cruz was "powered by a surge of support from evangelical Christians." Using similar wording, The Wall Street Journal pointed to "a surge of evangelical Christians, along with support from the Republican Party’s most conservative voters" as combining to bolster Cruz. 

In Cruz's home state of Texas, the Houston Chronicle declared:

A Southern Baptist and preacher’s son, the Texas senator rode a shock wave of evangelical fervor and disenchantment with government, a potent formula that propelled conservative Christians to victory in the past two GOP caucuses in this farm state.

Meanwhile, NPR noted:

In the end, Cruz relied on the strategy that had worked for Rick Santorum in 2012 and for Mike Huckabee in 2008, going straight at the state's evangelical Christian voters. That group was once again estimated at 60 percent of the GOP caucus population. And Cruz was clearly their preferred entrant in a field of a dozen that included both Santorum and Huckabee.

And Iowa's flagship newspaper, the Des Moines Register, reported:

Iowa, a state where almost half of likely GOP caucusgoers identify themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, continued its trend of promoting a social conservative rather than the national front-runner. Trump leads by 16 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics rolling average of national polls.

The Washington Post went deeper than most media outlets in explaining how evangelicals and a solid ground game propelled Cruz:

DES MOINES — It was on a hot July day in 2013, six months after he joined the Senate, that Ted Cruz began what would become his winning campaign in Iowa.
At a faith gathering at the Des Moines Marriott, the Texan bowed his head as pastors laid their hands on his shoulders to pray. Meanwhile, the senator’s aides collected their names and email addresses, starting a database of evangelical leaders that would swell over the following months and years. Cruz’s father, Rafael, himself a preacher, looked on, beaming.

So, what does it all mean? Some more concrete numbers on how evangelicals voted would be helpful. Anybody seen any of those figures? If so, please share links in the comments section.

Other questions moving forward: Will Cruz fare better than the past two social conservatives to claim Iowa (Santorum and Huckabee) did? Will the Trump factor among evangelicals remain a major storyline, or did Iowa mark the beginning of the Donald's end? Will Rubio (who thanked his "Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" for his surprisingly strong showing) grab more of the evangelical spotlight? 

As always of course, familiar questions — Who is an an evangelical? Who isn't? Who says so? — will be important in assessing the campaign outlook and media coverage. 

After last night's results, this much seems certain: The 2016 presidential race just got even more intriguing. And we didn't even mention Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

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