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Evangelicals, issues and the 2008 Iowa caucuses

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Up to 60% of Iowa 2008 Republican presidential caucus attendees considered themselves Protestant evangelicals, which likely led to the unexpected victory of born-again Republican candidate Mike Huckabee over front-runner Mitt Romney. The relation between religious and political affiliations, however, is not always so clear-cut, as evidenced by the decisions Democratic evangelicals must make.

The 2010 study from Iowa State University published in Politics and Religion, “Evangelicals, Issues, and the 2008 Iowa Caucuses,” analyzes the results of phone surveys before and after the 2008 Iowa caucuses with 299 Democrats and 175 Republican caucus participants. Respondents were asked about their positions on the war in Iraq, the economy, the environment, immigration, abortion, and same-sex marriage, as well as their preferred candidates. From this data, the author analyzed the strength of party identification versus evangelical values as well as the preferred candidate for both Democratic and Republican evangelical voters.

Key study findings include:

  • Both evangelical Democrats and Republicans conform to conventional party positions on non-social policy issues (the war in Iraq, the economy, the environment and immigration.)
  • All respondents, however, adhered to typical evangelical positions in opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage regardless of stated political affiliation.
  • There is not unanimity on social issues within the Iowan evangelical community. For evangelical Democrats, “opinions and ideology were uniformly and significantly more liberal than their Republican counterparts [and] were considerably more liberal concerning abortion and same-sex marriage than are even the non-evangelical Republicans.”
  • For Democratic respondents, “Evangelical identity had no bearing on one’s candidate choice.” This finding suggests that for Democrats, political affiliation drove caucus choices, not social issues.
  • However, Republican evangelical respondents most often caucused for born-again candidate Mike Huckabee, and Romney, John McCain, and Fred Thompson supporters were much less likely to identify as evangelical than Huckabee supporters.  “Evangelical identity was clearly the deciding factor in citizens’ choices between Huckabee and other candidates.”
  • One point from the study may have bearing on the 2012 GOP Iowa contest: “Particularly interesting in this case is that in the pre-caucus version of these results, Romney was predicted to win the Republican caucuses. The Huckabee surge came in late November, and it seems that, when Evangelicals were given the choice to vote for a viable Evangelical candidate, that is precisely what they did. It may also have been the case that Huckabee’s emergence — and Romney’s subsequent need to defend his Mormon faith — may have highlighted the candidates’ faith differences to the point of increasing Huckbee’s appeal at the expense of Romney’s.”

The author concludes, “Republican Evangelicals are still motivated by social issues in their voting choices, or perhaps simply by resonance on these issues with a demonstrably Evangelical candidate.”

Tags: religion, Iowa/New Hampshire

    Writer: | Last updated: November 7, 2011

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    Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.

    Analysis assignments

    Read the Politics and Religion study "Evangelicals, Issues, and the 2008 Iowa Caucuses."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Read the issue-related Newsweek article "Michele Bachmann: Tea Party Queen."

    1. List some significant public preconceptions about evangelical voters. Analyzing the study and article, what are the salient religious-voter issues raised should journalists need to think carefully about?

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.