Trump consolidates the evangelical vote in Iowa

But it was also a flex. For all the attempts by DeSantis and his evangelical allies to court the conservative Christian vote, Trump not only remains dominant with the group, but is relying on it to fuel his massive lead in Iowa ahead of the caucuses on Monday. A critical faction of the GOP that once blocked his ascendance here in 2016, evangelicals are now a primary reason he is so far ahead.

“Of course I’m caucusing for President Trump,” said Judy Billings, a loyal member of the congregation, clutching her Bible as she entered the foyer. “I just love the guy. I think he’s a total hero, and he has my full support … I think he’s the only one that can win and lead our country.”

In 2016, evangelicals were a weak point for Trump in the primary. But eight years later — after the party took a hard turn toward Trump-ism — they now sit firmly in his corner. In the most recent
Des Moines Register Iowa Poll
released Saturday night, Trump drew support from 51 percent of evangelical Christians in Iowa who plan to attend GOP caucuses, far ahead of DeSantis at 22 percent.

Even evangelicals supportive of Trump’s opponents can apparently see the writing on the wall. Last week, Vander Plaats wrote in an op-ed published Tuesday
in the Des Moines newspaper
that Trump “could very well win the primary,” while predicting “the system and the sheer number of Trump haters will never allow him to win the presidency.”

But the lead up to this year’s caucus has shown that, in a GOP primary, speaking the language of evangelicals is hardly a prerequisite for winning them. The two evangelical-identifying candidates who talked incessantly about their faith and were the most biblically literate of the Republicans in the race — former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott — were the earliest to drop out.

Their effortless invocations of scripture and Christian principles hardly mattered to the voters whose church attendance and personal beliefs were likely most similar to theirs. In his visits to the state in recent months for rallies and caucus trainings, Trump — who has been married three times and during this campaign cycle lost a defamation lawsuit from a woman who said he raped her — didn’t bother to recite Bible verses or inspire Iowans to lean into their faith.

He didn’t need to. They’re already with him.

Trump in recent years has emerged as something of a messianic figure among some, though not all, factions of the conservative evangelical church. This month, the former president began sharing a “God made Trump” video online and at his rallies, one that says God appointed him as a “caretaker” for “his planned paradise,” and a figure “willing to go into the den of vipers.”

On Sunday, church leaders at Soteria saved Lake and her entourage a row of seats up front and center. Vander Plaats and his wife sat just four pews back from her.

“Both the caucuses and the Republican nomination for president run through the evangelical community,” said Ralph Reed, the longtime evangelical kingmaker. “There is no path to this nomination without winning a plurality, and preferably a healthy plurality of these voters, starting in Iowa, and then running through the remaining primaries.”

DeSantis made a specific play for Iowa’s conservative Christians by attempting to follow the model of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s successful 2016 caucus campaign and, at times, invoking scripture on the campaign trail. But doing so never felt like a natural approach for the Catholic Florida governor, who prior to his presidential bid did not frequently discuss his faith in public.

And Haley virtually never turned her stump speeches into Bible lessons, instead choosing to focus her time on discussing domestic and foreign policy issues she would solve, and using her experience as a mother, rather than faith explicitly, to appeal to the audience in a personal way.

Haley and DeSantis were not without supporters at Soteria on Sunday. In separate interviews, church attendee Nathan Peterson said he intended to caucus for Haley, and Rick Kisling said he would show up for DeSantis.

But both said they would likely vote for Trump in a general election if he is the Republican nominee.

Trump has undoubtedly made significant gains with evangelical voters since the 2016 caucus and the party’s subsequent primaries that year. Cruz captured some 34 percent of the evangelical vote in Iowa, while Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio evenly split the remainder of it. On Sunday,
Rubio endorsed Trump

At Soteria, in the lobby after the service, Vander Plaats held court with fellow church members and DeSantis surrogates who had braved the sub-zero temperatures to attend. Asked whether he thought Lake was attempting to troll him by showing up, Vander Plaats shrugged and laughed.

“I don’t care if she is,” he said. “She’s welcome to be here — and at least she heard the gospel.”

Lake insisted her presence at his church Sunday was not to prove a point; in town to stump for Trump, she said she wanted to attend a worship service and her staff took her to this one.

“President Trump has proven himself” by achieving conservative Christians’ top policy goals while in office, Lake said after the Sunday service.

Asked about evangelicals’ initial reluctance of the real estate mogul and media personality, Lake noted how much had changed since then.

“2016 seems like ancient history right now.”

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