Donald Trump—the far and away GOP frontrunner—has secured a quick win in Iowa, where his campaign’s Christian rhetoric stoked his fan base but disturbed some evangelical leaders.
National outlets barely waited for the ink on the ballots to dry before calling the race for Trump only 30 minutes after caucus sites closed. Some sites were still voting.
Trump won with 51 percent of the vote, more than the other candidates combined, sweeping all but one county in the state. The former president consistently led in the polls by around 30 points, thanks largely to support from evangelical Christians. Around half told pollsters he was their first choice.
That’s a shift from the last time Trump ran in Iowa. The state’s evangelicals weren’t excited about the foul-mouthed real estate mogul in 2016 and favored Ted Cruz, viewing Trump as “the lesser of two evils” when paired against Hillary Clinton in the election, said Jeff VanDerWerff, a political science professor at Northwestern College, a Christian college in Orange City, Iowa.
“The thing that’s just been really fascinating to me over the last eight years,” VanDerWerff told Christianity Today, “has been this slow migration and now this real embrace, it seems, of Trump. That he’s become or is seen as this instrument of God.”
Early entrance polls from CNN found that 55 percent of white evangelical Christians said they were supporting Trump.
Despite subzero temperatures, supporters heeded Trump’s call to turn out: “You can’t sit home. If you’re sick as a dog, you say, ‘Darling, I gotta make it,’” Trump told a crowd at an Indianola rally Sunday. “Even if you vote and then pass away, it’s worth it, remember.”
This loyalty comes despite Trump spending less time in Iowa than his competition. His ground campaign was complicated by the former president’s legal troubles pulling him elsewhere. A week before the caucuses, he had an appearance in Washington, DC, for an appeals court hearing Tuesday and another court appearance in New York Thursday.
Two-thirds of white evangelicals voting in Iowa believe Trump would remain fit for the presidency even if convicted, according to entrance polls by CNN.
Monday’s results in Iowa give Trump a chance to say, “I’ve got all the support and momentum. The future primaries are kind of pointless at this point,” Daniel Bennett, department chair of political science at John Brown University, told CT. “He can say that, you know, this is what we thought it would be and other folks should rally behind him to beat [President] Joe Biden.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley were competing for a second-place finish that would allow them to emerge as a clear Trump alternative, something neither landed. With 94 percent of the vote tallied, DeSantis led with over 21 percent, while Haley tailed him at 19 percent.
DeSantis’s narrow capture of second comes after he hit all 99 counties in Iowa. He also earned top endorsements from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, as well as pastors and faith leaders, and on Monday, the campaign held a prayer call with one of those leaders, Bob Vander Plaats.
As the front-runner, Trump’s attitude toward the primary has been one of annoyance that it’s happening at all. He skipped out on the candidate debates, opting to hold rallies or town halls as counterprogramming. His camp believes that the former president’s base of support is too strong for any other candidate to overcome, that those challenging him for the nomination are disloyal, and that they may as well skip to the general election.
And unlike the sparse organization he had in 2016, his ground campaign deployed surrogates to make Trump’s case for him: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem; firebrand GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia; and Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s former press secretary, all made stops in Iowa.
At Trump’s rallies, speakers, from pastors to local politicians, cast the 2024 election in spiritual terms: calling Trump’s legal troubles as persecution, his foes—from the media, Democrats, or Republicans who have endorsed his opponents—as evil forces, and his supporters as true believers.
The other GOP candidates “should have all thrown their support behind [Trump],” Iowa voter Craig Fleakei told CT. “And if they didn’t, then they agree with the results of 2020 and they don’t have a backbone,” he added.
Ryan Burge, a political scientist with Eastern Illinois University who specializes in religion and politics, noted in his Substack newsletter that only a quarter of Iowans identified as born-again/evangelical Christians. Over half of Iowans attend religious services less than once a year, and only a quarter of Iowans report attending church weekly. Some of the steepest declines in religious attendance occurred among rural areas of the state, he noted.
“There’s just no way to look at this and argue that Iowa is a bastion of Christian values,” Burge wrote. “It’s just not.”
Still, Christian imagery and language was all over Trump campaign events across the state. At a rally last month in Coralville, Iowa, one woman wearing an oversized cross necklace toted a Trump sign. Another wore a T-shirt that read, “Jesus Is My Savior, Trump Is My President.”
“Whether it’s [pro-life], whether it’s Israel, whether it’s religious freedom, the litany of good things that are important to Christians … President Trump promised and then delivered,” Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, the Trump campaign’s senior Iowa advisor, told CT.
But their use of Christianity has led into some shaky theological territory.
Perhaps inspired by one of DeSantis’s Florida gubernatorial campaign ads, one video that Trump shared on his Truth Social account—and played at campaign rallies—is a prime example. Made by a group that calls itself Trump’s Online War Machine, the video adapted the late broadcaster Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer” monologue with artificial intelligence to weave in mentions of Trump.
“God looked down on his planned Paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God gave us Trump,” the narrator said. The video paints Trump in hagiographic terms: as someone who goes into a “den of vipers” and deals with the “fake news, for their tongues as sharp as serpents” (a reference to Psalm 140), and wraps up “a hard week’s work by attending church on Sunday.”
“God said, ‘I need somebody who will be strong and courageous, who will not be afraid or terrified of the wolves when they attack a man who cares for the flock,’” the narration continues, “‘a shepherd to mankind who will never leave nor forsake them.’ … So God made Trump.”
The rhetoric has troubled some faith leaders in the state.
Steve Deace, a conservative Christian Iowa-based talk show host who supported DeSantis, said on social media, “We already have a Messiah to place our hope and faith in. What we need is a president who can manage this place somewhat competently until He returns.”
Monday’s results show that, at least in Iowa, the average white evangelical voter was not troubled by Trump’s approach.
“Sure, certain pastors … might look at that language and kind of roll their eyes or even be really troubled by it,” said Bennett at John Brown. “But if you consider yourself maybe culturally Christian or have this relationship with Jesus that’s not being discipled outside of political echo chambers or something, I think you’re going to be more predisposed to that and not be bothered by it at all.”
At the Coralville rally, Joel Tenney, a 27-year-old evangelist, told the crowd that the election was “part of a spiritual battle” that included “demonic forces.” Tenney predicted that Trump would win the White House and that when he did, “there will be a retribution against all those who have promoted evil in this country.”
Trump allies say that evangelical voters’ loyalty to Trump stems from the track record of his presidential administration.
In September, at a summit hosted by the conservative Family Research Council, Trump made the pitch that “no president has ever fought for Christians as hard as I have. And I will keep on fighting for Christians as hard as I can for four more years in the White House.”
He said his administration did more for religious liberty “than any administration in history, according to everybody.” He’s pledged to establish a task force to address “anti-Christian” bias if reelected.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve heard from Christian voters is ‘Let’s make sure that everything that the president did for us is maintained,’” Kaufmann, Trump’s advisor in Iowa, said. “But also, ‘let’s make sure that we can continue to go on offense to fight for Christianity,’ which the president has done and will continue to do.”
Haley spent less time in Iowa than the others. Her campaign was boosted by a November endorsement from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity Action, which reached out to voters in every county.
Meanwhile, the crowd of presidential hopefuls has started to thin: Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the GOP candidate most willing to criticize Trump, dropped out Wednesday. Political newcomer and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy took his fourth place finish in Iowa as a sign to bow out of the race. After garnering around 7 percent Monday night, he suspended his campaign and encouraged his supporters to back Trump instead.