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Has Donald Trump Won Nomination Already? Careful. And Keep A Hawkeye On Iowa

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Has Donald Trump Won Nomination Already? Careful. And Keep A Hawkeye On Iowa

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Religion Unplugged believes in a diversity of well-reasoned and well-researched opinions. This piece reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily represent those of Religion Unplugged, its staff and contributors.

(OPINION) In nationwide polls, Donald Trump has defied multiple legal snarls to pad his already healthy margin over potential challenger Ron DeSantis for the Republican nomination. So far, those two swamp all other possible names, such as Nikki Haley.

As for state polling, South Carolina numbers last week from Winthrop University have Trump at 41% and DeSantis 20%, while the two locals got only 18% (Haley), and 7% (Tim Scott). Likewise, in New Hampshire with its first primary, a St. Anselm College poll in late March reported Trump 42%, DeSantis 29%, popular Governor Chris Sununu a mere 14% and Haley 4%.

Reporters on the politics, religion and religion-and-politics beats should especially keep a hawkeye (so to speak) on Iowa, with its crucial first-in-the-nation caucus next January — turf already well trod by GOP hopefuls. An April 4 poll of likely GOP caucus-goers by J.L. Partners shows Trump at 41%, DeSantis 26% and Haley at 5%.

Here is some Iowa lore.

In 1975, the relatively unknown Jimmy Carter began energetically working every living room and county fair in sight, came in a surprise second to “uncommitted” in the 1976 Democratic caucus and went on to win it all.

Religion angle? Carter was doubtless helped in Iowa by his authentic image as a devout Baptist Sunday School teacher. In 2008, greenhorn Barack Obama’s road to the White House began with an unexpected win in mostly-White Iowa.

As for Republican caucuses, televangelist Pat Robertson shocked the pundits by coming in second to Bob Dole and ahead of Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Recent first-place winners were redeemed-drunk George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, Baptist minister Mike Huckabee in 2008, Catholic social conservative Rick Santorum in 2012, and preacher’s kid Ted Cruz, who beat the religiously ambiguous Trump in 2016.

An AP head last week depicted “Trump and Iowa evangelicals: A bond that is hard to break.” But a March 10 CBS head had a contrasting tone: “Iowa Republicans say they may look beyond Trump in 2024.

CBS debriefed the influential Bob Vander Plaats (515–263-3495 or [email protected]), whose Christian-oriented The Family Leader rallies Iowa social conservatives. Vander Plaats is among those who insist “it’s an open field” whatever the polls say. He predicts if Trump stalls in Iowa, “I think it’s ‘game on’ for the nomination.” (He himself boosted Cruz over loser Trump in 2016.)

Iowa’s past underscores the importance of personable polls’ face-to-face campaigning (ditto New Hampshire) — never Trump’s strong point.

Observers like Chris Christie say that DeSantis may also lack the needed down-home charm. Would this pay off at church potlucks for active Methodist Haley, or evangelicals Scott or Mike Pence or Bob Jones University alumnus Asa Hutchinson?

The AP article says “born-again Christians are the most influential group in Iowa’s GOP caucuses, giving faith leaders particular sway in helping organize voters and shape the results.” Yes, activists are well-networked and energetic, but The Guy would emphasize that journalists should consider studying other aspects of Iowa’s religious map.

On that, and just in time for the campaign, the media and party strategists have fresh data from all states and counties nationwide from the 2020 round of the decennial U.S. Religion Census. Ryan Burge’s analysis underscores that in Iowa and other Midwest states, many counties have seen a church membership drop since 2010 of 10% or more. But which churches?

The full rundown on Iowa shows a state dominated by three religious categories. Though steadily shrinking, the largest remains mainline Protestants (generally more moderate than coastal flocks in those denominations), closely followed by two groups with more stable numbers since 1980, the Catholics and then evangelical Protestants. As often noted, Hispanic and Black numbers are minimal in Iowa.

Iowa’s biggest single denomination, as nationwide, is the Catholic Church, with 470,000 members. Might it matter that DeSantis is Catholic?

The Guy repeats his frequent admonition that political reporters who cover every evangelical twitch should focus more on Catholics and other tribes of vital swing voters. They could be up for grabs in 2024. An EWTN News poll of U.S. Catholics last October showed a lopsided 67% oppose a Trump rerun, while 58% do not want Joe Biden to seek a second term.

The biggest mainline denomination is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with 185,000 adherents (there are also 107,000 in conservative Lutheran groups). Next come Iowa’s 174,000 United Methodists, now hit with their denomination’s nationwide split as depicted here and also here. The largest of the numerous evangelical groups is the nondenominational independent congregations, which count 85,000 members.

Might some or many evangelicals eventually turn against Trump?

Consider these April 5 words from Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who voted for Trump in 2020: “I do not want Donald J. Trump to be the 2024 Republican nominee. There is simply too much baggage and too much Donald J. Trump. A statesman would realize that fact and make way for someone else to lead.”

It’s still early. The Guy advises fellow journalists to be cautious about seeming Trump inevitability in such a volatile and grumpy American era, especially when so much unpredictable Trump courtroom drama coincides with the campaign.



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