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Iowa's Social Conservatives Are Up For Grabs

The Fix always keeps a close eye on the Iowa media for stories that signal the mood of voters in the all-important, first-in-the-nation caucus state.

On Saturday, Mike Glover -- the longtime Associated Press reporter in Iowa -- penned an interesting story that examined the seeming lack of energy among Iowa's social conservatives toward the 2008 election, a disinterest likely born of the lack of an obvious candidate for them to back.

In the piece, Glover noted that Iowa Republicans suffered widespread defeats last fall -- failing to regain the governor's mansion and losing both chambers of the state legislature. The piece reported that Steve Scheffler, a prominent Iowa social conservative, attributes those losses to the fact that many voters who share his philosophy sat the race out.

Unfortunately, exit polling was not done in Iowa in 2006, so we don't have a way to empirically prove Scheffler's proposition. But in 2004 white evangelical protestants, which tend to be used as a stand-in for social conservatives by pollsters, made up 33 percent of the Iowa electorate and went strongly for President Bush by a 66 percent to 33 percent margin. Splicing that subgroup even further, white evangelical protestants who attend church weekly and define themselves as conservative -- 11 percent of the Iowa electorate -- went for Bush 94 percent to 5 percent.

In the 2000 Iowa Republican caucuses, 37 percent of GOP caucusgoers identified themselves as members of the "religious right." Among that group, Bush won 33 percent to 27 percent for Steve Forbes, 23 percent for Alan Keyes and 16 percent for Gary Bauer. Overall, Bush took 41 percent of the GOP caucus vote to 30 percent for Forbes, 14 percent for Keyes and nine percent for Bauer.

As we wrote recently, the past three competitive Iowa GOP caucuses have shown that there is roughly 24 percent of the vote that will go to whichever candidate is seen as the strongest voice on social conservative issues. Bauer and Keyes combined for 23 percent in 2000 while Pat Buchanan took 23 percent (good for second place) in the 1996 Iowa Republican caucuses. In 1988, Rev. Pat Robertson received 24.6 percent of the GOP caucus vote.

What that history means moving forward is that there is still room for a candidate who can energize social conservative voters and turn them out at their traditional levels next January. At the moment, the candidate best positioned to do that is former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) -- IF he ultimately decides to run.

If Thompson stays on the sidelines, it's not clear which candidate benefits most. Social conservatives could spread their vote among the "conservative" candidates in the field, with the likely result that no one person will emerge as the candidate of the ideological right. Or, a figure like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) could enter the race and unify social conservatives behind him.

It's anybody's guess, but as Glover astutely pointed out in his piece, no one has stepped forward yet to capitalize on that one-quarter of the Iowa caucus electorate looking for a champion on social issues.

For more reading on social conservatives and their approach to the 2008 presidential election, check out the story Alan Cooperman and I wrote in February on that very subject.

And for more historical data on the Iowa caucuses, make sure to check out the great page on the Des Moines Register's Web site.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 10, 2007; 12:58 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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