When Texas Sen. Ted Cruz announced his 2016 presidential candidacy at Liberty University, a Baptist school in Virginia, on Monday, he was also announcing his intention to lean heavily on evangelical voters in his run. He likely did that with an eye on the Iowa caucuses.
In the 2012 Republican caucuses in the Hawkeye State, 57 percent of the voters identified themselves as “born-again or evangelical Christians.” That space on the Republican continuum already looks crowded. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker look strong with conservative “values voters” as we noted last week.
So how does Mr. Cruz break through in Iowa? His road, or the road of anyone looking to win with social conservatives, is going to involve a lot of travel. The sparsely populated counties of Rural Middle America and the Aging Farmlands, hold the keys to victory, when viewed through the breakdown of the American Communities Project.
In 2012, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum eked out a win in Iowa (winning by about 30 votes) by winning those counties. There are 86 of them and they run across the state to all four corners.
To give a sense of how sparsely populated those places are consider this. There are 99 counties in all of Iowa and these 86 only hold about 54 percent of the state’s people. And remember, Iowa voters like retail politics. They like to meet candidates individually when they can – and they often can. So Mr. Cruz should be prepared to roll over a lot of Iowa back roads in the coming months.
His path to victory will involve travel to Henry County in the Southeastern corner of the state to Sioux County, in the northwestern corner, (Mr. Santorum won both of those) and to a long list of counties between.
Iowa “evangelical” voters are also a breed apart in a few different ways.
While Mr. Cruz is himself a Southern Baptist and announced his candidacy at a Baptist university, Iowa is not a big center for Baptist voters. The voters who are from protestant faiths in the state are more likely to be Methodist or Lutheran churchgoers, as you can see on this map.
In a broader sense, the “values voters” in Iowa are less concerned with the faith of the candidates than their positions on a range of social conservative issues. In 2008, Mr. Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, won the social conservative vote in Iowa on his way to winning to caucus. In 2012, Mr. Santorum, a Catholic, took the same route – though he won by less.
So, in the end, what Mr. Cruz says in his campaign, and how it compares to the rest of the field, may end up being much more important than his personal faith or where he announces his run.
Perhaps most important to keep in mind, all these rules for Iowa look a lot different in the next big nominating contest in New Hampshire. In 2012, only 22 percent of those primary voters identified themselves as “born-again or evangelical.”