Evangelical leaders predict huge caucus turnout, downplay endorsements

Left to right: Ron DeSantis/GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images; Nikki Haley/Sam Wolfe; Donald Trump/AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

By Ty Rushing

January 11, 2024

Iowa caucus candidates have racked up big-name endorsements—including a notable last-minute flip flop—but one evangelical leader said none of that will matter come Monday.

“We think endorsements are overrated generally, but they’re particularly overrated in Iowa,” said Ralph Reed, the founder and chairman of the national Faith & Freedom Coalition and a senior advisor on the 2000 and 2004 Bush campaigns.

Reed noted that in 2016, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad—the longest-serving governor in American history—told caucus-goers to support anyone but US Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) because he opposed the Renewable Fuel Standard.

“Ted was from Texas, which is an oil state, and he had voted against ethanol mandates,” Reed said. “That put him out of position with farmers in Iowa and the political establishment and Terry Branstad went after [him] with hammer and tongs and all Ted Cruz did was win the caucuses.”

Current Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds pushed her political chips all in on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running neck-and-neck with former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley for a distant second-place finish behind former President Donald Trump.

Reed shared his insight during a media call on Thursday that also featured Steve Scheffler, the president of the Iowa Faith &  Freedom Coalition. The duo also provided perspective on the caucus and what kind of turnout to expect from evangelical voters.

“We think a far higher raw number than anyone anticipates is going to brave this cold weather and frigid temperatures and they are going to turn out and they are going to make history,” Reed said.

With the wind chill, meteorologists are predicting low temperatures close to minus 20 degrees on Monday, and the Des Moines Register reported that this could be the coldest caucus night in history.

“We’re going to have a robust turnout,” Scheffler said. “It’s going to be very, very cold but I do not think that’s going to impact that turnout very much at all. These people are committed and they take this seriously.”

Scheffler did not predict who would win on Monday, but he cited a recent poll that said 70% of Trump supporters are committed to caucusing for him while only about 35% of DeSantis and Haley supporters remain firmly committed.

“Anything could happen, but what I think makes this caucus unique compared to eight years ago or ones we’ve had in the past when you have an open contest is that people know what Donald Trump did,” Scheffler said.

“For the other candidates to convince caucus-goers that they are going to be bold on initiatives and policy that’s important to evangelical, pro-life Catholics—the polling shows that maybe they haven’t quite made that case yet,” he continued.

Reed and Scheffler gave their best-case caucus scenario for each of the leading candidates. For Trump, Reed said his team wants a 10% or higher victory.

“That would be everything that they would ask for and more,” he said.

Reed thinks Haley hopes to emulate Marco Rubio’s 2016 results. The Republican Florida senator finished third place in the caucus.

“You want to be right there with those three,” Reed said. “She’s clearly better positioned right now in New Hampshire in the polling and in terms of the way she is laying out in the electorate with [New Hampshire] Gov. Chris Sununu backing her and the way she’s viewed by moderates and independents and soft Republicans.”

As far as DeSantis goes, Scheffler thinks this is a make-or-break for his campaign.

“The amount of time he has spent here, the humongous amount of resources he has put into Iowa, if he doesn’t win the caucuses or come very, very close—within 2 or 3%—I don’t see how he goes on to New Hampshire to make his case,” Scheffler said.

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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