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Inside Iowa’s evangelical vote

Religious voters explain their thinking on caucus night

Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters during a caucus night party on Monday in West Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall

Inside Iowa’s evangelical vote

SIOUX CENTER, Iowa—At a small gathering of three Republican precincts in northwestern Iowa on Monday night, Doug Boone, a lifelong area resident, stood up to give a last-minute speech on behalf of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“We also know he will get the job done because he has the support of people we trust,” Boone said, listing Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, faith leaders, and state legislators. “I believe we need a true conservative who is genuine, has a strong backbone, and the strongest moral compass in the White House who can beat Joe Biden. … Join me and Iowa’s most reliable conservatives in caucusing for Ron DeSantis tonight.”

Sioux Center is in Sioux County, one of the most conservative in the state, and it’s where DeSantis had his best results on Monday. The region has a strong Dutch Christian Reformed heritage. While former President Donald Trump won a commanding 51 percent of the statewide vote in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, his victory in Sioux County was more modest at 45 percent. DeSantis, meanwhile received 31.1 percent of the vote in Sioux County compared to 21.2 percent in the state overall. At the three precincts voting at the Terrace View Event Center in Sioux Center, DeSantis got 129 votes to Trump’s 124.

DeSantis caught the attention of conservatives across the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he pushed back against mandatory school and business closures. He also made headlines with his support for banning critical race theory in schools and his duel with Disney over the company’s governance and LGBTQ policies. He made references to spiritual warfare in the political arena. As a candidate, DeSantis made more campaign stops in Iowa than any of his competitors except Vivek Ramaswamy. This paid off when he earned second place statewide in the caucuses, upsetting expected momentum for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

Iowans who say their religious beliefs influence their votes told me that Trump’s brash and argumentative personality dissuaded them from supporting him in the caucuses even though they back his policies. They saw DeSantis as a younger, more moral option. But that support was not unconditional.

Dave Wolf moved to Iowa last year with his wife, Kay. He said faithfulness in marriage tells him a lot about a person, and Trump doesn’t measure up. He voted for Ramaswamy, and Kay picked DeSantis.

“I don’t believe that any one man is going to save this country,” Dave told me. “God is in charge, he raises up governments, and he lets governments go. Thinking about that, I thought about how Donald Trump is very concerned about the people that aren’t loyal to him. And yet he himself doesn’t show loyalty. The most serious promise he ever made is to his wives. He’s been unfaithful to all three of them. And yet he expects everybody to be faithful to him? That was the biggest turning point for me.”

Nevertheless, the Wolfs said they would vote for Trump if he is the GOP candidate for president in November.

If he was only voting based on conscience, floor installer Gilbert Meyer would have picked Ryan Binkley, a long-shot candidate and pastor from Texas. But the political system being what it is, Meyer said, he was more comfortable with DeSantis even though he has a slim chance of overtaking Trump to win the nomination.

“Ultimately, I would like to send Trump a message that maybe DeSantis should be in his Cabinet or vice president,” he said. “It’s possible that Ron will get enough votes to matter. But I heard Mike Huckabee say this weekend that the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire [primary] isn’t so much about electing a president as it is about eliminating a bunch of candidates.”

Lyle and Hannah Wielenga brought their toddler to the caucus on Monday and waited to hear the results. It was their first time voting in a caucus, and they both chose DeSantis.

“We did get to hear him speak here in town, and really liked what he had to say,” Lyle said. “I really liked what I’ve seen him do in Florida, and think that that’s a good model for what we can do as a country. And I think his endorsements by the family leaders does influence me as well.”

He was referring to The FAMiLY Leader, a Christian conservative organization based in Urbandale, Iowa. The group hosts summits for Christian voters, asks candidates about their faith, and advocates for conservative issues nationwide and in the state legislature. CEO Bob Vander Plaats gave DeSantis his personal endorsement this year. He said his decision was based on a mix of weighing the political factors and finding DeSantis’ faith genuine.

“If this election becomes a referendum on President Trump, it’s about the indictments, Jan. 6, and the criminal charges. And it’s gonna be awfully hard to win,” Vander Plaats told me. “If this election is a referendum on Joe Biden, compared to a positive vision for the future with Ron DeSantis, I believe we can win. And he and his family also present us a role model that our kids and grandkids could look up to, to say we’d like to emulate the leadership that we see in the White House.”

A recent CBS News/YouGov poll found that Trump, Haley, and DeSantis could each defeat President Joe Biden in a general election. The data found Trump could win with just 50 percent, leaving Biden at 48. DeSantis edged ahead with 51 percent and Haley at 53.

DeSantis frequently talks on the campaign trail about trusting in God and protecting religious freedoms. He was raised Catholic but does not discuss his personal approach to faith. Vander Plaats said DeSantis’ experiences dealing with his sister’s death when he was a child and his wife, Casey’s, cancer diagnosis also showcased a strong personal faith. In interviews last year, DeSantis said he and his wife found solace in prayer. On the campaign trail, one of his main messages paraphrases a verse in Ephesians that tells Christians to “put on the whole armor of God.” DeSantis then applies the verse to battling the political left.

“That’s where the rubber meets the road,” Vander Plaats said. “He doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve, but he’s a man of deep faith. You understand quickly that Gov. DeSantis understands who he is, but also whose he is.”

Trump is less explicit about his faith, Vander Plaats said.

“The Scripture said man looks at the outward appearances, but God judges the heart,” Vander Plaats continued. “There’s a lot of things about President Trump that really doesn’t reflect the fruit of the Spirit. That said, policies and some of those things, I aligned quickly, but I don’t know his faith. I’m not sure what that is.”

Voters in Iowa told me they don’t approve of all of Trump’s personal actions, but they are electing “a president, not a pastor.” Evangelical supporters say faith and politics are important but separate considerations.

“I look at Trump and I see somebody who is a very flawed human being, who has committed sins, who says things that would never enter into my mind to say,” state Sen. Jeff Taylor told WORLD. Taylor teaches political science at Dordt University, a Christian college, and endorsed Trump. “But I recognize that I am also a sinner. But every single one of us falls short of the glory of God. So I can look at him as a human being. And then I look at him as a political leader who represents the issues I care most about.”

At a DeSantis rally in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, just hours before the caucuses began, voters met the Florida governor at a local pub. Kendra Dziurawiec, 23, said she decided back in 2020 to support DeSantis should he ever run.

“I’m going to vote in November for whatever Republican is there,” she told me. “But I think Ron DeSantis would have a way better chance than Donald Trump any day. I know what I’m voting for is right in my heart. And just what God’s telling me to do.”

At the bar, Benjamin Jackson weighed whether to switch his vote from Trump to DeSantis. A former Democrat, Jackson said his faith has pushed him more into conservative politics, and this year he’s supporting anyone other than Nikki Haley. Like many Iowans, he was leaning towards Trump but still undecided on caucus day.

“I think Trump’s faith strengthened since being in office and going through being the target of all these different legal battles and lawfare against him,” Jackson told me. “The media made it seem he’s not committed to his faith, but I feel like I can trust him more now. But I would trust DeSantis’ faith more and his commitment to protecting Christian values.”

All the candidates left Iowa late Monday night to refocus attention on states with upcoming primaries. Haley, Trump, and Ramaswamy—who dropped out of the race but is now campaigning for Trump—flew to New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Tuesday. DeSantis, however, is doubling down on South Carolina. He only has 5 percent of Republican support in polls in New Hampshire, one of the least religious states in the country. DeSantis is challenging Haley’s conservative record on her home turf to boost his 12 percent share in South Carolina before its Feb. 24 primary.

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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