Evangelical Christian voters will have one of their last opportunities before the Iowa caucuses in January to take a look at the shrinking Republican field Friday in Des Moines.
And while former President Donald Trump has a clear lead in the polls and has had a grip on the White evangelical base since the 2016 general election, faith leaders say this base is still up for grabs.
Influential evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats’ organization, “The FAMiLY Leader,” will be hosting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley for a Thanksgiving Family forum. Sen. Tim Scott, of South Carolina and former Vice President Mike Pence exited the primary race in the last two weeks.
While Trump is the front runner for the GOP nomination, he haswith Vander Plaats since the party’s underperformance in the 2022 midterms. Trump is expected to skip the event, the second time he’s been absent from an event hosted by Vander Plaats.
Vander Plaats, a faith leader who has endorsed the eventual winner in every contested GOP caucus since 2008, has not yet said who he’ll support – but his coveted endorsement could soon go to DeSantis.
On a Monday call with fundraisers, DeSantis told donors he is expecting an endorsement from Vander Plaats’ within a week of the roundtable, according to multiple attendees who were on the call. The DeSantis campaign denies the governor said this.
In an interview with CBS News, Vander Plaats said the “jury’s still out” on his endorsement and that he’s looking forward to the roundtable Friday, which he will moderate, to help him make a final decision.
He added he’ll endorse a candidate between Friday’s event and Christmas.
Vander Plaats said he wants to back someone with a “consistency of convictions and a vision of principled leadership,” but also says he wants a candidate who can not only win the Iowa caucuses, but the nomination and the general election, too. He believes Trump has hit a “high-water mark” in the Des Moines Register poll showing him at 43%, and predicted “you’re gonna start seeing movement” away from Trump now that the field is narrowing.
“That may not be by Dec. 1, but I guarantee you by Jan. 15 there’ll be movement,” he added.
Vander Plaats has met several times with the Florida governor. And recently, DeSantis was the only candidate to show support for Vander Plaats’ event after the Republican National Committee (RNC) threatened to block any candidates who attend it from the debate stage, citing a rule against non-RNC sanctioned debates. Vander Plaats and the RNC came to an agreement over the event last Saturday.
“Iowa’s ground zero for a lot of reasons. I think if you beat Trump here, it’s game on for the nomination. But there is an argument to coalesce around the winner of the Iowa caucuses immediately,” Vander Plaats added. “That’s where unity has to happen, you need to get this one-on-one with Trump going into New Hampshire, South Carolina or the other states.”
The evangelical Christian voting bloc
White evangelical voters have historically made up a sizable block of Iowa’s GOP electorate. In an August Des Moines Register/NBC/Mediacom poll, 55% of respondents described themselves as “devoutly religious.”
In that same poll, 42% of respondents listed Trump as their first choice, with DeSantis at second. An October Des Moines Register poll showed Trump’s support at 43% and DeSantis tied with Haley at 16%.
In 2016, Trump won the support of White evangelicals in 19 of the 28 states where CBS News primary exit polls were conducted. That support carried into his 2020 re-election bid, where 76% of White evangelical Christians supported Trump, according to Washington Post exit polls.
But some faith leaders say the electorate of evangelical Christians is not as settled on Trump as polls indicate.
“There’s not a unanimous candidate that you would say every evangelical Christian has rallied around at this point. There’s a lot of discussion going on,” argued Iowa state Representative Jon Dunwell, a pastor in Monroe, Iowa, who is backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Past Iowa GOP caucus winners have benefited from a last-minute boost from evangelical voters: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008, former Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012 and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in 2016, who led in support from evangelical Christians according to a 2016(Cruz’s 2016 campaign manager, Jeff Roe, runs the super PAC backing DeSantis).
“In the past, [Evangelical voters] usually moved en masse to a candidate. And it’s usually been late,” said longtime Iowa GOP strategist David Kochel who was a top strategist for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 run.
Kochel said in this election, Trump’s presence and hold on a portion of the Evangelical base could cause it to be split between the other non-Trump candidates.
But Haley’s rise in the polls could also complicate whether Trump or DeSantis can win the full support of these voters.
Kochel said Haley and DeSantis have “different coalitions” in the state. Haley, he said, is more akin to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who in 2016 targeted traditional, establishment Republicans in Des Moines and eastern Iowa, while DeSantis’ campaign tracks with Cruz’s approach, visiting all 99 counties in the state and appealing to evangelical voters.
Haley’s campaign said it is “taking nothing for granted” in terms of the evangelical vote and argued her foreign policy record resonates with these voters.
“Evangelicals appreciate Nikki Haley’s steadfast support for Israel and her record of standing up to anti-Israel dictators at the United Nations. That’s why Nikki is rising in the polls and is now second in Iowa,” said a Haley campaign spokesperson.
After Pence and Scott ended their campaigns, DeSantis’ team noted both had tried “surging resources in Iowa” to attract evangelical support, and that DeSantis has been “making headway with those voters.”
The DeSantis campaign also believes Trump and Haley have vulnerabilities with the Faith electorate on the issue of abortion — especially Trump, who called Florida’s six-week ban “.” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds passed a similar bill that is currently stalled in the courts.
“Both Nikki Haley and Donald Trump’s records and visions for America are better suited for Gavin Newsom’s California than today’s Hawkeye State. In contrast, Ron DeSantis shares the values of faith, family, and freedom of hardworking Iowans,” said communications director Andrew Romeo.
Earlier this month, Trump began running Iowa radio spots that mention his record on abortion — and his nomination of enough conservative Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade.
DeSantis has spent months making overtures to Iowa’s evangelical community, and in September announced the support of a “Faith, Family and Freedom” coalition made up of over 55 Iowa pastors and faith leaders.
But he was upstaged by Trump in late October, whose campaign released a list of over 100 faith leaders in Iowa supporting him.
“People of faith truly appreciate what former President Donald Trump did for this country,” said Jeremy Higgins, a lead pastor at the Calvary Community Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who is backing DeSantis.
“One of the things I hear most from people is that a great deal of what he accomplished as president was overturned within weeks of Biden’s presidency. And people of a faith base really want something more than that. We want our roots to run deeper than that,” he added.
Vander Plaats endorsement impact
Huckabee, who is backing Trump, downplayed the impact of a potential Vander Plaats endorsement in this race.
“No doubt it helped,” Huckabee said of Vander Plaats’ endorsement and work for his 2008 presidential candidacy. “It’ll give some people who maybe have not looked at DeSantis that close, to take another look. But it’s not gonna be the coup de grâce. It’s not gonna take Trump down 20 points and DeSantis up 20 points.”
A September memo from Trump’s pollsters suggested that if Vander Plaats endorses DeSantis, it would have “no significant impact on the Presidential ballot.”
“There was no statistically significant change to the ballot other than Undecideds increasing slightly from 7% to 13%” wrote pollsters Tony Fabrizio, David Lee and Travis Tunis.
Faith leaders in Iowa supporting DeSantis disagree. While they don’t think a Vander Plaats endorsement would be as influential as the Iowa governor’s endorsement, they predicted the two combined would be a huge boost for DeSantis.
“He has resources and a network all over the state of Iowa that can be deployed and push thousands of voters within a matter of days,” Mark Doland, a pastor in Oskaloosa, Iowa, said of Vander Plaats.
Mark Dowell, an undecided voter and retired truck driver in Dubuque, Iowa, acknowledged that while Vander Plaats’ endorsement is “very important” for western Iowa, “it’ll make little” difference for who he votes for.
“Nobody expects Donald Trump to be found in the front row of a church every Sunday”
Huckabee called the Iowa caucuses “Trump’s to lose at this point.” He voiced confidence that Trump’s record of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the Abraham Accords will help him keep that base.
When asked to compare the electorate of evangelical voters who helped him win the caucuses in 2008, to those who have supported Trump since 2016, Huckabee said there’s little need to support a candidate who can be in their “small group at church on Sunday night,” and it’s more about whether candidates support smaller government.
“Nobody expects Donald Trump to be found on the front row of a church every Sunday. And I think what they look for is ‘will someone bring leadership where they just leave us alone?'” Huckabee said.
Taurean Small and Fin Gomez contributed reporting.