Reporter’s Notebook: A night with Iowa’s evangelical voters
Presidential candidates face scrutiny in the first caucus state
DES MOINES—Steve Scheffler has voted in every Iowa caucus since 1972. It involves bundling up on a frigid, Midwest January night to attend his precinct meeting, sitting through a reading of the candidate names, casting a secret ballot, and often staying to vote on planks of the party platform. Sometimes candidates themselves come to caucus night and sit with voters to make one last pitch. But many will already have met Scheffler by that point.
Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, stood near the podium at the organization’s annual banquet last week. He took pictures with each of the 10 Republican candidates in attendance before they took the stage. Representing a variety of religious traditions, from Catholic to Protestant to Hindu, they answered questions about why they deserved support from Iowans, especially evangelical voters.
“We don’t necessarily pick the president, but we certainly winnow the field,” Scheffler told me from backstage. “We need to fine-tune and compare these candidates and pin them down on specific issues. But at the end of the day, their least favorite candidate is probably far preferable to what’s in the White House right now.”
Former President Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, is embroiled in an unofficial feud with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who also spoke at the banquet. Trump skipped the Iowa State Fair and recently criticized six-week abortion bills Reynolds and other governors have signed. Field organizers for the Trump campaign did staff a table in the lobby, well-stocked with beer koozies and stickers. They had competition, though.
At Vivek Ramaswamy’s table, staffers handed out massive “Truth” decals while the candidate chatted with a growing circle of attendees. Former Vice President Mike Pence and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson also roamed the lobby shaking hands with people on their way inside.
Inside the banquet hall, reactions to candidates mirrored national polls. Roughly half the room stood to applaud Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has remained second in the polls despite declining support numbers. The crowd politely applauded Pence but offered no standing ovation.
In a typical presidential year, roughly 15 percent of Iowa voters are still undecided on caucus night, which will be Jan. 15, 2024. Precinct meetings are typically held in a school gym or a municipal building. Gloria Mazza is the Polk County Republican chairwoman, and she typically is too busy running operations behind the scenes to caucus herself.
“I have 176 precincts in this county alone,” Mazza said. “It’s not like you go into a poll and fill your ballot out or pull a handle. It’s a full meeting. Right now we’re cutting out over 40,000 ballots. Then we have to count those ballots in front of everybody and get all the votes reported that night. It could be 4 in the morning before we go home.”
On Republican caucus night, each voter will write his or her preferred candidate on a secret ballot cast and counted in real time. It will be the culmination of countless miles trekked across farmland, a more personal touch from presidential candidates that Iowans have come to expect.
“We’re so proud of being first in the nation. We’re here to help vet the candidates for the rest of the country,” Mazza told me. “We ask the hard questions. We get to know their backgrounds and their personalities.”
During election season, Mazza is frequently on call to introduce candidates at events of all sorts. She introduced former UN Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at Jethro’s BBQ & Bacon in Des Moines just hours before the Faith and Freedom banquet. That morning, Haley held babies and tackled foreign policy questions as roughly 150 Iowans ate their breakfasts.
“Our parents raised us to be responsible individuals,” Haley told them. “We went to school, and we learned what it meant to be successful. We went to church, and we found our faith and conscience. Don’t you want that again? It’s going to take a lot of courage. Courage for me to run, and courage for every one of you.”
Several attendees called Haley “dynamic” and said they liked that she “gets more specific” than other candidates they’ve seen. Others said they enjoyed meeting her but are still considering their options.
Brad Bennett and his wife moved to Iowa earlier this year and will caucus for the first time in January. He planned to cast his vote for DeSantis, but last month’s Republican debate was a turning point.
“I watched the debate and was very impressed with what Haley did and said,” Bennett told me as campaign staffers milled around with sign-up sheets titled “Commit to Caucus.” “We’ve just committed that we want to support her.”
About 20 minutes east, DeSantis arrived at the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ to speak at a “God Over Government” event. His staffers walked down a line that snaked through the parking lot with caucus commitment sheets of their own. Inside, DeSantis told the packed pews that he would defend religious liberty as president, citing policies he passed in Florida to keep churches open during the pandemic.
Eric Ellingsen and Alix Guillaume drove 40 minutes from Ames, Iowa, to attend the event. Ellingsen had already decided to support DeSantis on caucus night. He said he thinks DeSantis can accomplish what Trump couldn’t with border security and the economy. But he said faith is a strong motivator for him, too.
“I’m also looking at the Christian values that DeSantis has, compared to Trump,” Ellingsen said. “I voted for Trump once, but seeing DeSantis come out and try to align with the pastors is very important for this nation.”
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy is Hindu but says he shares values with Christians.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had somebody who stands truly, in the way they live their life, for faith, patriotism, hard work, and family,” Ramaswamy said during the banquet, prompting a round of applause. “While the left is feeding us race, gender, sexuality, climate, we’ve fallen into the trap of pointing out all the reasons why that vision is wrong. That’s not good enough. We have to stand for the individual, the family, the nation, and God.”
Ramaswamy’s Hindu background does not appear to bother his Iowan supporters any more than Trump’s personal life concerns his base.
“He’s not running for pastor of the country,” Dallas County resident Dallas Quill said, paraphrasing one of Ramaswamy’s statements. “It is an advantage for someone to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But there’s a revelation of Scripture and a revelation of nature. I believe that Ramaswamy agrees with the overwhelming majority of Biblical principles, though he is clearly not a Christian.”
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