The agony of Iowa's evangelicals

Story highlights

  • Evangelicals are among the most reliable caucus-goers every four years
  • They're torn between choosing Donald Trump, Ted Cruz

Clinton, Iowa (CNN)The final days before the first-in-the-nation caucuses are agonizing for many Iowa evangelicals as they waver between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

At events for both GOP presidential candidates across the Hawkeye state, voters say they are torn between backing the committed Christian conservative who is solid on their principles, or the once-liberal, thrice-married candidate who they believe would make the stronger president.
Sherry Benson, a 57-year-old graphic designer from Marshalltown, said she is still trying to come to terms with Trump's evolution on abortion. Benson calls abortion "the biggest sin of our country." The anti-Trump television ads detailing his shifts—with arresting clips of the candidate talking about his support for abortion in 1999—have kept that issue fresh on her mind.
    "It's been a really, really big struggle for me this time," Benson said after listening to Trump speak at a rally last week. "I think people can change, but I don't see him as the biggest conservative."
    Still, Trump's forceful personality has convinced her that he could be effective as commander-in-chief.
    "My Christianity and my conservative values tell me that Cruz is the logical choice," she said. "I could forgo, I think, some of my Christian and conservative principles slightly if I knew that Trump could repair the mess that the country is in. And that is something that I see in him, he might have the ability to just -- 'Boom' -- take care of things very quickly."
    Retired schoolteacher Paul Thompson, 75, ranks Cruz at the top of his list because "he is an evangelical Christian, as I am," he said. But he too is feeling the gravitational pull to Trump's candidacy.

    'We want to see a winner'

    Thompson had a simple answer when asked to explain why Trump, a Presbyterian, is leading among evangelicals in some polls given his personal history and changing stances over the years.
    "We want to see a winner, and I think we perceive him as a winner," he said.
    Cruz has worked diligently for months to court evangelical voters, who often show up in droves every four years to caucus for Republicans. That decision for many evangelicals between head and heart could very well decide who wins Iowa on Monday night after a tight race between the Texas senator and the real estate magnate. The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll released Saturday evening found Trump leading Cruz 28% to 23%.
    While many had assumed that Cruz would have a lock on white evangelical voters, particularly as support for retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson has waned, Trump has shown surprising strength within that voter group. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll released Thursday, Trump notched the support of 31% of evangelical Christians to Cruz's 28%. But in a poll of likely Iowa caucus participants released earlier by Quinnipiac University, Cruz led Trump among white born-again evangelicals 34% to 27%.
    Nationally, Trump was leading Cruz among GOP evangelicals 39% to 25%, according to a CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday.
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    Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's efforts to reach evangelicals also appear to be paying dividends after a month in which he has emphasized his faith. Though Rubio is far behind Trump and Cruz in Iowa polls, a number of evangelicals mentioned him as their third choice in interviews over the past week and he is rising in the polls.

    Outsized influence

    Evangelical voters are the most reliable bloc of caucus-goers on the Republican side and they have had outsized influence in past election cycles. In 2012, some 57% of voters entering the Iowa caucuses in 2012 described themselves as evangelical Christians, according to polling by the Pew Research Center—and they helped Rick Santorum narrowly edge out Mitt Romney in Iowa, just as they helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee four years earlier.
    With that history in mind, Cruz allies have pummeled Trump over the past week as a political opportunist who cannot be trusted, given his past positions on issues like partial birth abortion.
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    One blistering ad from a super PAC supporting Cruz described Trump as "extreme" on abortion and used a video clip from a 1999 interview where "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert asked whether a "President Trump" would ban "partial birth abortion."
    The ad shows part of Trump's answer -- "I am pro-choice in every respect."
    It is not just Trump's past statements that are at issue. When asked about his faith, voters here sometimes bring up Trump's embarrassing gaffe at Liberty University where he quoted from "Two Corinthians" instead of "Second Corinthians," or the event in Ames last year where he said he didn't think he'd ever sought forgiveness from God.
    Trump went a long way to buttressing his credibility by winning an endorsement from evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University, though Falwell's decision caused an uproar within the Liberty University alumni community.
    Falwell doubled down on his endorsement Saturday night as he appeared with Trump on the campaign trail. His praise was effusive -- at times almost fawning -- as he essentially told the Davenport crowd that he was willing to take the heat over his decision.
    Trump, he said at least twice, reminded him of his father, the famed televangelist and Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell Sr. He cited private acts of generosity that he said Trump does not typically boast about -- from financial assistance that he said the mogul offered to a couple who helped him with his broken-down limousine to his aid for an inner city basketball team.
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    By way of explaining his endorsement of Trump, Falwell noted that any parent who had a sick child would seek the best doctor they could find.
    "It may not be a doctor who goes to your church, but it's the one who has the most experience with that particular illness," he said.
    His father, he added, "was criticized in the late 1970s, early '80s, because he supported Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried, over Jimmy Carter, who was a Sunday school teacher -- a southern Baptist Sunday school teacher," Falwell said.
    "You know, I think he made the right decision. He explained that when he went into the voting booth, he wasn't trying to elect a Sunday school teacher, or pastor, or even somebody who shared his theological beliefs," Falwell said. "He was trying to elect the most qualified person to be the president of the United States. We know Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday school teacher; but look how he did as President."
    Trump went a step further on Saturday by releasing a closing message to evangelicals on Facebook, showing the Bible that his mother had given him and thanking conservative Christians for supporting him.
    "My mother gave me this Bible, this very Bible, many years ago. In fact it's her writing right here. She wrote the name and my address, and it's just very special to me," Trump said in the Facebook video. "And again, I want to thank the evangelicals. I will never let you down."

    Open question for evangelicals

    But that's still an open question for some evangelicals here. Seventeen-year-old David Blom said he went to a Trump event last week, in part, to try to get a better sense of the authenticity of his faith.
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    "Just listening to the language from Trump tonight, he said 'terminated' instead of 'killed' when he was talking about life," said Blom, who has trained other students at his school to caucus (many, he said, are leaning toward Trump or Cruz). "He makes fun of the media, but then he uses the pro-choice, and pro-abortion term instead of what an Iowa evangelical would see as being a person of life and value."
    "Life is super important and we can't have a new convert leading the pro-life movement as the Republican nominee," the high school senior said.
    Surrogates for Cruz have traveled the state emphasizing Cruz's consistency on social issues like marriage, abortion and religious liberty.
    "Ted Cruz is going to be the same today as he was yesterday, as he will be tomorrow," former Texas Gov. Rick Perry told voters at a Cruz event in Albia.
    On Saturday, the head of the Cruz campaign's "99 Pastors" group, Pastor Joseph Brown, penned an email to more than 150 pastors across Iowa encouraging them to "prepare to challenge and equip your people for the Iowa Caucus taking place on Monday."
    The message was heeded at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines Sunday morning, where Cruz attended services with his family.
    Iowa congressman Steve King, who traveled the state on Cruz's behalf last week, predicted that some evangelical voters enamored by Trump will ultimately flip back to Cruz.
    "Two thirds of the people who will come to caucus are full spectrum constitutional Christian conservatives. They are pro-life, they are pro-marriage, they are pro-religious liberty, they're pro-Second Amendment, they are pro-free enterprise and for a strong national defense," King said. "They know what they believe in and they've been for three generations bringing their children up to caucus because it's part of their tradition."
    Those voters, he argued, "are very uneasy about Trump.... They don't know what he's going to do next."
    That is one reason that VanWeelden, a 73-year-old pastor from rural Albia, decided on Cruz.
    "He speaks from his heart. He is not an act," he said.
    While Trump's taunting jabs at other candidates have amused some GOP voters, they are not in keeping with the language of a man who lives by his Christian faith."
    "I like Donald Trump in the way that he's not a politician," VanWeelden went on. "We need somebody that's strong and stands by what he says, but I do believe you don't need to slander people to get there."
    Christians, he noted, are "taught to love our fellow man, not to run him into the ground or condemn him.... Grace is treating everybody with respect and working with them."