How did religion factor into the results of Tuesday's Iowa caucuses?
Depends on whom you ask.
According to Politico, "religion didn't play the way it was expected to."
"The Iowa GOP caucuses are known to be heavy with evangelical voters," wrote Politico's Maggie Haberman. "Entrance polls showed that 57 percent of the caucus voters were evangelicals, with whom (Mitt) Romney has never fared well." But she noted that evangelical Christian voters "never coalesced around a single candidate this time, as they did with (Mike) Huckabee in 2008."
The interesting thing, according to Politico, is since "50 percent of the overall vote went to a Mormon candidate (Romney), or a Catholic candidate (Rick Santorum)," there is "no strong evidence that evangelicals will stay home in 2012 if Romney is the nominee."
On the other hand, Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian reports that Santorum's late surge in caucus voting can be attributed largely to "the last-minute endorsement of Christian evangelical leaders in the state."
"Santorum, the most socially conservative candidate in the Republican field, (recently) won the backing of Bob Vander Plaats, chief executive of the Family Leader, and Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center," wrote MacAskill, who noted that these endorsements were "desperately sought by Santorum's rivals Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann."
Although Santorum initially attributed his success in Iowa to "hard work and having a strong message and having had the confidence since the start," he acknowledged that the evangelical endorsements made a difference at the end.
"Their support is important," he told MacAskill. "It got the ball rolling."
"Getting the ball rolling" is perhaps an understatement. According to polling data compiled by Real Clear Politics , Santorum's numbers had been hovering between 3 and 6 percent for several months prior to the Dec. 20 announcement of the evangelical endorsements. From that time forward, his numbers rose sharply until Tuesday, when he finished with 24.5 percent of the caucus vote.
Mark Silk of Spiritual Politics suggests that for Santorum to garner 32 percent of the evangelical vote "against two strenuous evangelical candidates (Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry) and an idiosyncratic one (Ron Paul), that's an impressive performance — really, an historic one. Somewhere, Al Smith and Jack Kennedy are smiling."
Silk also believes that the Iowa results should give Romney reason to be "anxious."
"His evangelical support dropped by nearly a third (compared to the Iowa results in 2008), from 19 percent to 14 percent," Silk wrote. "Put that together with the fact that a strong plurality (29 percent) of tea partiers also supported Santorum (Paul and Romney tied for second at 19 percent), and it means there's trouble on the right, including anti-Mormon trouble."
For the record, a CBS News entrance poll conducted during the Tuesday caucus vote showed 32 percent of those who classified themselves as born again or evangelical Christians voted for Santorum, 18 percent for Paul and 14 percent each for Romney, Perry and Gingrinch. Michele Bachmann got 6 percent of that vote.
None of that suggests a "splintering" of the evangelical vote, according to Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Rather, Reed wrote on CNN's religion blog, "this suggests a more nuanced and complex portrait of voters of faith."
Such voters, Reed says, are often "crudely portrayed as voting based solely on identity politics, born suckers for quotes from Scripture or 'code words' laced in the speeches of candidates appealing to their spiritual beliefs." But it turns out that they "are a more sophisticated bunch, judging candidates on a broad continuum of considerations from their personal faith and character to leadership attributes and electability."
The lesson of Iowa, Reed concludes, is that "when commentators prognosticate about the 'evangelical vote,' we might want to ask them, 'Which one?' For there are many evangelicals votes, many candidates who win their support and a multitude of motivations for their engagement in the rough-and-tumble of American politics."