01/04/2012 05:28 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2012

Lessons from Iowa's Evangelicals

In a field with Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann as options, perhaps one of the bigger surprises of Tuesday's Iowa caucus was the support of evangelical voters for the Catholic Rick Santorum. Representing 57% of caucus-goers (down three percent from four years ago), evangelical Iowans gave Santorum 32% of their support while evangelical candidates Perry and Bachmann could only muster 14% and 6%, respectively, from their fellow believers.

Mitt Romney, who won in Iowa by little more than a carefully-coiffed hair, also only grabbed 14% backing from evangelicals. Those low numbers among the Republican Party's most important constituency could portend trouble for the candidate who almost everyone agrees would be the automatic shoo-in for the GOP's nomination if not for his membership in the Mormon Church. If unable to shake evangelical apathy (or perhaps even antipathy) towards his Mormon faith, Romney will come up short again in his quest for the Republican ticket.

But the results in Iowa shouldn't be read so hastily. And the primaries to come might disrupt conventional wisdoms about evangelicals, Mormonism, and the Republican Party.
First, it's worth looking at those numbers from Iowa again. While Romney clearly faltered among evangelicals in the Hawkeye state, it was at the expense of their support for a Catholic - not for one of their own. Between Santorum and Gingrich (who also received 14% support from evangelicals), Iowa born again caucus-goers gave the two Catholic contenders 46% of their vote compared to just 20% for the two evangelical candidates. While evangelical Republicans have often voted for Catholic candidates, rarely have they done so when they've also had one from their own flock to support. That evangelical voters in Iowa had not one but two fellow believers to choose from makes their tepid support for either all the more notable. Among the field, only Jon Huntsman, the Mormon candidate who essentially skipped Iowa, drew less support from evangelical voters than Michelle Bachmann did.

Secondly, it's easy to predict that Romney's poor showing among Iowa evangelicals forecasts more troubles for him with this crucial voting bloc in upcoming primaries. That Romney received more support from Iowa evangelicals in 2008 (when he came away with 19% of their votes) than he did on Tuesday certainly doesn't inspire confidence that he has successfully settled the "Mormon question" from four years ago. But if Mike Huckabee couldn't turn an evangelical-backed victory in Iowa into the Republican nomination in 2008, there's no reason to think that Romney's national chances have been doomed because only a few thousand evangelicals in Iowa found him tolerable this go-around.

Four years ago, evangelicals in key primary states like South Carolina, Florida, and Virginia helped give McCain the win over Huckabee, and in many other states like Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, enough evangelicals backed McCain that Huckabee was able to escape with only the slimmest margin - victories that did nothing to help him chip away at McCain's overall delegate advantage. With Michelle Bachmann now out of the race and Rick Perry likely to soon follow, evangelical voters in upcoming primaries will have to choose from a narrowed field of contenders. If Rick Santorum can raise money fast and build a campaign infrastructure in battleground states while continuing to shore up social conservatives, he has the chance to wage a competitive race against Romney. Even still, it's hard to envision a scenario where Romney doesn't eventually grind out a victory, although perhaps a messy one.

While evangelicals aren't likely to jump en masse on the Romney bandwagon right now, enough of them will support him in the primaries ahead that he'll be able to amass the necessary delegates. Either way, the prospect of evangelical voters deciding between a Catholic and a Mormon for the nomination of the Republican Party means that a whole lot of political "truths" are about to get buried in the dustbin of history.