Iowa! New Hampshire! South Carolina! Santorum! God!

January 6th, 2012 · No Comments


Bob Vander Plaats (Mr. Clappy) at Santorum’s Iowa victory speech

The Iowa Republican caucuses found Mitt Romney winning in an eight-vote landslide over Rick Santorum. Not 8 percent – eight votes. Santorum’s showing was impressive and more of a win than Romney’s. The candidates packed up and left for New Hampshire, Bachmann dropped out, and Perry is heading straight to South Carolina – he is sick of the “loosey-goosey” Iowa process and would like to get back to the real deal.

Barring an airport restroom toe-tapping incident, Romney will win New Hampshire. But Santorum is happy to use his Iowa victory to peel off some Romneyites. With Newt’s newfound obsession to bury Romney – and after giving an Iowa concession speech that practically endorsed Santorum – the margin between first, second, and third place will be shaved.

Current polling shows Santorum edging up  via the Iowa bounce: Romney at 43 percent, Paul at 18, Santorum at 11, Gingrich at 9, Huntsman at 7, and Perry barely ahead of also-ran Buddy Roemer at 1.

While Perry is off trying to scoop up votes in a friendlier southern state, Santorum will let his boots-on-the-ground team in South Carolina work its magic for him – just like in Iowa – while he traipses around New Hampshire.

Let me explain.

The media marveled at the spending gap between Romney and Santorum. According to the Washington Post, Romney spent about $1.47 million on media and won 29,874 votes — $49 per vote. Santorum spent only $21,980 in Iowa and took 29,908 votes in the caucuses, totaling about 73 cents per vote. (UPDATE: The Washington Post numbers were based on totals at press time; the final tally was 30,015 votes for Romney and 30,007 for Santorum.)

Romney spent most of that slamming Gingrich while Santorum didn’t need to spend as much – he had The FAMiLY Leader (TFL), its leader Bob Vander Plaats, and a host of evangelicals both in and out of the pulpit spreading the Santorum good news. (Currently, “Romney is pumping $264,000 into television ads in New Hampshire, while Santorum is spending just $16,000 in the Granite State this week, according to the Associated Press.”)

Two pastors, Cary Gordon of the recently bankrupt Cornerstone World Outreach in Sioux City and Jeff Mullen of Point of Grace church in Waukee (who is running for Iowa Senate), have both worked with TFL and Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition to organize the evangelical electorate in Iowa. Be it rallying against gay marriage, ousting justices from the Iowa Supreme Court, or waxing ridiculous about secularism’s resemblance to Nazis, these pastors defied the IRS to endorse candidacies.

Santorum was on the stump in Iowa since the anti-judge campaign during the midterms of 2010. He showed up with Vander Plaats and the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins on the FRC and National Organization for Marriage anti-judge bus tour, which rallied the evangelical base to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

To recap, TFL is responsible for the bizarre “Marriage Vow” made famous in July that extolled the benefits of slavery to African-American families (after push-back, TFL removed all reference to slavery from the pledge’s text) and women’s role in society (producing lots of babies), and most recently a possible pay-to-play scandal in which TFL asked Santorum to essentially pay for its endorsement. (Despite all this, TFL wouldn’t be half as interesting a story if the organization hadn’t been built with over $3 million in federal funds.)

Vander Plaats, a former high school principal (with a gentle, golden Trumpian comb-over), was called a Republican political “kingmaker” by the Atlantic (and almost all national media outlets) and ranked as one of the top 10 “endorsements the presidential candidates covet most” by the Hill last year.

TFL began building its serious national political clout during the run-up to the 2010 midterms. Then known as the Iowa Family Policy Center, The FAMiLY Leader (the little “i” stands for subservience to God) scooped up Vander Plaats, the three-time Iowa gubernatorial race loser. His assignment? To lead the charge to oust the three Iowa Supreme Court Justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage (mentioned above). With the help of over half a million of out-of-state dollars from groups like the Family Research Council, the insane American Family Association, and the National Organization for Marriage, he pulled it off.

Vander Plaats leveraged this success and his success in chairing Huckabee’s campaign to victory in 2008 to become the man holding the door for every single GOP candidate coming through Iowa in 2011. The organization’s coup de grace this caucus season? The Thanksgiving Family Forum featuring Republican candidates taking turns weeping during their personal testimony to cement their Christian conservative cred. Riveted evangelicals were stapled in their pews as the candidates spoke for over two hours in an Iowa church.

Santorum’s chumminess with TFL will serve him well. TFL is part of network of Christian organizations – affiliates of Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. The South Carolina analog to TFL – The Palmetto Family Council – will undoubtedly follow suit and start working its magic for Santorum. The PFC also received federal funding – $1.2 million to preach heterosexual marriage and abstinence-only education by way of George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives.

One thing to note: It doesn’t matter what Santorum wins – Romney is a foregone conclusion as the nominee, which in turn won’t matter because Obama is a shoe-in. This is a polish job for 2016. Santorum is just trying to get his organization right. His message will need to be refined, as he can’t possibly let his crazy hang out too much – gotta keep that man-on-dog as analogy for homosexuality stuff to yourself, Rick.

That Santorum will not get the candidacy is irrelevant – it is the right-wing infrastructure of state FRC affiliates (in many cases built with taxpayer money) that enabled Santorum to spend so little money in places like Iowa and no doubt South Carolina.

There are many things to understand about the caucus process itself before one even dives into the run up to the caucus circus of GOP campaigning. If you would like to investigate further I recommend this Des Moines Register explainer. Here is the bottom line: no delegates were awarded, nor will they be until the convention, and even then delegates can hop from candidate to candidate.

You could say – and many have – that Iowa just doesn’t matter, and in a way you would be right. But in the sense that Iowa gives us an inside view as to how candidates will campaign and who is campaigning for them, it is invaluable.* Iowa is the first true vetting process for the presidential election. Candidates are forced to leave it all on the field in the state. They have to show up and sling their arm around a farmer, or hoist a baby off a propped hay bale at the Iowa State Fair.

I don’t remember which pundit brought this up during the caucus coverage (probably Chris Matthews), but he spoke with two (count ‘em – two!) Iowans who said they wouldn’t vote for Romney because of his Mormon faith. This is a popular storyline and one that the media loves to whip up. Though it may have been true Romney’s last go-’round, the sheer desperation of the Republican Party has done away with much anti-Mormon sentiment. With such a representative sample of two people, Chris (or whoever it was) does nothing to help the country’s ailing perception of Iowa. Iowa is not the bible belt. Again – this was a GOP caucus – Iowa Democrats effectively didn’t caucus this year. As with any GOP anything the God talk is going to be at least a simmer and often a rolling boil. In Iowa there is just a fine point put on right-wingery as the main political group is TFL.

By the way, Iowa has a Mormon Secretary of State, Matt Schultz (who ended up backing Santorum).

I have a handful of evangelical friends in Iowa so I ran the Mormon question up the flagpole. Was it an issue at their precinct? The answer came back a resounding no. One very conservative Christian gentleman I went to high school with (Jason S.) summed it up like this:

“The supporter for Romney in our precinct specifically mentioned that although Romney’s relationship with God was different than this person’s own, they would leave that between him and God. Perhaps my perception was stronger than the reality, we will have to see. It does appear though that there are a number of people who are of the camp that there is some sort of common morality between most religions and that this is what is important, that the elected official has demonstrated that they are morally upstanding.”

I found this Romney supporter’s rationale refreshing: leave Romney’s religion between him and his God.

Here is what a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll finds about the 2012 Republican caucus in Iowa:

Among the 57% of Iowa caucus-goers who describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, Santorum finished in first place with 32% support. Ron Paul garnered 18% of the evangelical vote, while Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry each received 14% of the evangelical vote.

Romney, Gingrich and Perry all walked away with 14 percent. And, Romney didn’t show up to the Thanksgiving Family Forum sponsored by TFL, whereas Gingrich and Perry did. Pew also points out Huckabee was the clear winner in 2008, walking with 46 percent of the evangelical vote.

CNN’s Belief Blog co-editor Dan Gilgoff said that religion will not be a factor in the Granite State, as if when the candidates left Iowa the cathedral doors of the state clapped shut. (Although Gilgoff’s observations, and the input of New Hampshirites in his article, that religion is essentially less discussed in New Hampshire than Iowa, is probably true, that doesn’t mean it isn’t at work in the political process in New Hampshire.)

Here’s what I mean. In the very first paragraphvery first! – Gilgoff points to Cornerstone as the go-to Christian group in the state. (Karen Testerman, founder of Cornerstone, has already endorsed Santorum.) He talks about the group’s flagging membership and how it’s changing its focus from “family values” (read: anti-gay, anti-choice, Christian worldview, etc.) to fiscal and taxation issues – their membership and bank account soared.

This doesn’t mean that religion is taking a backseat. This means religion – via a Christian worldview – is embedded in our political system. Here is an example of the Christian worldview of TFL pulled from an article I wrote for the Revealer about the group last year:

Guided by such a Christian world view – with their interpretation of the Bible as policy guide — The Family Leader and Iowa House Republicans have already introduced a landslide of far-right legislation. There is the previously-mentioned HJR 6 anti-gay marriage amendment. A “religious conscience protection” act was introduced but quickly scrapped after a swift public backlash. It is feverishly being reworked to more closely resemble other states’ Religious Freedom Restoration Acts for re-release, possibly during this congressional session. There is a “personhood” bill that will be discussed in committee any day now, and the always repugnant “fetal pain” bill. These bills attempt to make abortion illegal based on the personal religious belief of some that life begins at conception and on bad science claiming to prove that a fetus feels pain.

The Christian worldview is applied across the board – not just on social issues but to economic and foreign policy as well. Santorum aligns with this worldview. How will that play in New Hampshire? His anti-gay talk is off to a bad start, with the candidate receiving boos when he expressed his anti-gay marriage views. But in a state that had the “chootspah”** to introduce an anti-evolution bill, the booing that greeted Santorum could be the exception, not the rule, in New Hampshire.

One thing is for sure: Santorum will have to downplay his Christian chatter in New Hampshire. To be a mainstream candidate he is going to have to appeal to Ron Paul libertarians and old-school Republicans, not just the tea-partying religious right. Can he pull off such a ruse? I don’t know, but if his recent claim that there should “always be a Jesus candidate” in a political race is any indication, it may be rough-going for Rick.

~

* RE: Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus status: anyone that goes first in anything is going to be the source of ridicule and, frankly, state envy. Who would be more suited to go first? Minnesota? South Dakota? New York? LA? Mississippi? No one anywhere will be happy with who goes first except the state that goes first. There is no magical place where racial, religious, or socioeconomic groups coexist in perfect percentages. It just won’t happen. Iowa is white. There is no getting around that. There is also no getting around the fact that Iowa gave Obama his first win in 2008. And, as a native Iowan, I would like to say you should always care about Iowa.

** Bachmannian spelling

*** There is a minor debate among Christian pundits about who handed Santorum his political win in Iowa. Steve Deace hands over full credit to Bob Vander Plaats for a Santorum win. Keep your eyes on the sky in the Midwest, people, as Vander Plaats is about to float out the top. Conservative blogger Shane Vander Hart doesn’t agree, however, giving BVP some credit but spreading it around to several other helpmeets.

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