CNN Iowa Insiders Survey: Will Iowa's evangelicals pick the GOP nominee?

Michele Bachmann talks about her faith while campaigning in Corning, Iowa, in the last days days before the Iowa caucuses.

Story highlights

  • Iowa evangelicals wield power in the GOP presidential selection process
  • Bachmann, Perry and Santorum are favorites among social conservatives
  • But their ability to consolidate power is questioned

We all know about the power of born-again and evangelical voters in the Iowa Republican presidential caucuses. Four years ago, three out of every five Iowans who attended a GOP precinct caucus described themselves that way, and they handed Baptist minister and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee an upset victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum would like to repeat that trick again on Tuesday. Whether 60% of the 2012 Iowa GOP caucus vote will be made up of self-described born-again or evangelical voters again, and whether any one of those candidates will be able to scoop up almost half of them as as Huckabee did, remains to be seen.

But even if Bachmann, Perry or Santorum can repeat Huckabee's feat, then what? New Hampshire's Yankee Republicans have been notoriously skeptical of what they perceive as holy rollers roaring out of Iowa. Huckabee could only manage a distant third-place finish with 11% of the vote in the 2008 Granite State primary. And when the 1988 Iowa caucuses elevated televangelist Pat Robertson with a second-place finish that year, he could only manage a fifth-place showing and 9% of the vote in the New Hampshire GOP primary. Both Huckabee and Robertson quickly headed to South Carolina to try to resuscitate their campaigns in its primary, but there were no revivals: Huckabee finished second there, and Robertson third.

CNN surveyed 64 Iowa GOP insiders, including state legislators, local elected and party officials, veterans of previous caucus campaigns, and other party operatives, and asked them if a relatively strong showing by any of this year's more conservative trio could lead to a legitimate run for the GOP nomination by rallying the faith vote. And in the state that knows that vote well, there were doubters.

If Bachmann, Perry or Santorum is able to finish in the top three in the caucuses, do you think that candidate will be able to consolidate the born-again/evangelical vote and become a significant factor in the GOP nominating contest?
• Yes: 46%
• No: 54%

The Iowa GOP insiders' skepticism was informed in part at least by what happened four years ago. "Huckabee couldn't do it and he was a much better candidate," observed one Iowa GOP insider. Maybe Santorum or Bachmann or Perry could consolidate the religious vote for a while, allowed another GOP insider: "Be a significant factor in the GOP nominating contest? No, the Huckabee campaign confirmed this in 2008."

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And even several of those yeses were qualified. "Bachmann and Perry are finished, they just don't know it yet," said one Iowa GOP insider dismissively. "Santorum could ride the wave for a while, but I doubt to the nomination." Another echoed, "Santorum could become the anti-Mitt, but (the) lack of a national organization and fundraising will be an impediment. He'd need to suddenly catch fire in South Carolina and he'll have a tough time with resources in Florida."