For God’s Sake

Why Iowa evangelicals haven’t flocked to Rick Perry.


A version of this story ran in the January 2012 issue.

On a drizzly, gray November day, the First Federated Church in Des Moines looked particularly formidable. The mega-church is a gigantic brick building, a converted high school that dominates the block. Its lack of aesthetic appeal didn’t deter the crowds. By the time approximately 3,000 people had filed in and taken their seats in the pews, the anticipation was palpable. The politics soon began.

Everyone was there for the “Family Forum,” a debate between GOP presidential candidates vying to win the critical Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. But this debate would be less about issues than about religious and moral beliefs, and the candidates’ personal stories of faith. On the sanctuary stage was a long table with a cornucopia of pumpkins and vines—like a Last Supper table if the apostles had gone to Hobby Lobby. In the background hung pale yellow banners, completing the autumnal effect. Outside were signs advertising the event’s moderator, Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who’s developed an audience among the Fox News-watching set. Of the Republican candidates, only Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney—the two Mormons in the field—weren’t making appearances. The rest were competing for the support and endorsement of the group organizing this spectacle: The Family Leader.

A powerhouse in right-wing Iowa politics, The Family Leader made national headlines earlier this year when the organization asked presidential candidates to sign its “marriage vow,” promising to define marriage as between a man and woman, and to support a marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Romney refused to sign. He objected to a section of the document that appeared to argue that slavery was preferable to the current number of unwed African-American mothers. The comparison didn’t invite positive press.

But the group’s muscle is hard to ignore. It helped unseat several Iowa Supreme Court judges after the court ruled a ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. One prominent political news site, The Hill, ranked an endorsement from the group’s leader, Bob Vander Plaats, among the most coveted in the country. The Family Leader was hosting the Family Forum to highlight issues most debates hadn’t bothered to drill down on: which candidate is most pro-life, most anti-gay rights, most Christian.

In case it wasn’t clear just what kind of politics The Family Leader endorses, videos before the forum offered further hints. In one video, ominous music played while a deep voice burst forth: “These precious things we hold dear are in dire jeopardy. Not everyone believes in democracy. They don’t believe in the will of the people. And most important, they don’t believe in you.”

The video went on to criticize Iowa lawmakers who hadn’t worked hard enough to end gay marriage after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled the state had to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In another video, Vander Plaats’ face popped on the screen to talk about the national debt. “Some of us turn on TV, and we see $14.3 trillion, and we ask, ‘How can we do this?”’ Vander Plaats exclaimed. “The reason we’re doing this with the national debt is ’cause the focus is on me, not on the next generation. We as people of faith are called to have a multi-generational focus. And that’s what we at The Family Leader are doing.” Between the videos, contemporary Christian music blared from the speakers.

After a prayer and some introductions, Vander Plaats appeared in the flesh to kick things off, seeming more Sunday school teacher than hardened political kingmaker. He explained to the crowd that “for people of faith to remove their voice from the public policy process is spiritual negligence.” He beamed as he introduced his wife and offered that “we don’t need you to be Republican or Democrat, but we need you to be biblical.” He soon sat down to make way for the big star: Luntz.

The roly-poly pollster stepped off the stage and stood inches from the closest pews. He knitted his eyebrows and said in a voice dripping with solemnity, “Today is one of the most important days in my life because I want it to be one of the most significant days in your life. … I want you to understand what’s in these people’s hearts. Not just the sound bites.” It was a tall order, but Luntz went on, asking the audience’s permission to forgo “bells and buzzers” and “gotcha questions.” He promised the audience “real conversations.” The applause was thunderous. A few minutes later, the candidates appeared on stage and took their seats at the long table, completing the Last Supper tableau. And at the center, in Jesus’ traditional spot, sat Rick Perry.

rickperryiowa2Back in August
, Perry’s campaign staffers probably dreamed about such a forum with Iowa evangelicals. It would have seemed the perfect event for their candidate. The Texas governor entered the race with a roar, disrupting the Iowa straw poll with his announcement. Even before he officially announced his presidential bid, Rick Perry had a two-part message: He’d brought jobs to Texas, and he’d done it by the will of God. The message seemed to stick.

While the governor bounced from Fox News to New York fundraisers expounding on the so-called Texas Miracle, he was also making clear that he believed wholeheartedly in a different kind of miracle.

At the beginning of August, Perry hosted a giant prayer rally he called “The Response.” The event attracted tens of thousands of believers with an unapologetically Christian message that was particularly appealing to fringe elements of the evangelical community, especially Christian Zionists and members of the New Apostolic Reformation movement, who believe in modern-day prophets with supernatural abilities. The event was hardly without controversy. The Anti-Defamation League, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Southern Poverty Law Center all criticized the governor’s explicitly Christian rally. Perry called the event “a call to prayer for a nation in crisis.” It was the largest gathering any GOP candidate (or in Perry’s case, soon-to-be candidate) had put on, and it was geared entirely toward Christians.

The political strategy behind The Response was easy to see. By some estimates, evangelical Christians make up more than half of GOP caucus-goers in Iowa. Gay marriage has dominated Republican politics in Iowa, a state with a huge population of conservative, rural communities. With his own rural roots and evangelical ties, Perry seemed a natural fit. It also made political sense for Perry to focus on Iowa. His hardline social conservatism and Texas swagger weren’t likely to play well in New Hampshire, the earliest primary state, but Iowa’s caucus would come first, and if Perry could win over Iowans, a loss in New Hampshire wouldn’t matter as much. If he could capture the evangelicals, Perry would be tough to beat in Iowa, and probably in South Carolina too—states that former preacher Mike Huckabee won in 2008. Those key early wins might boost Perry to the nomination.

At first, the strategy seemed to be working. A few days after entering the race, Perry stopped at the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City. Famous for its pie shakes, in which an entire piece of pie is blended into a milkshake, the family-owned restaurant has catered to candidates as far back as Richard Nixon. The restaurant hosts the “coffee bean caucus,” in which patrons place a coffee bean in their favorite candidate’s jar.

The restaurant was packed with supporters when Perry visited in August, said kitchen manager Jay Schworn. The candidate arrived with a security detail, unusual for small-town Iowa meet-and-greets, but Schworn said the event was a success. “I am not by any means a supporter of the Republican Party or Rick Perry, but I honestly thought … he seemed to have all the pieces in terms of being the good-looking guy,” Schworn said. “He was very charming. I thought he definitely had potential.”

That potential seems long gone now. Perry quickly rocketed to the top of most polls, but on the campaign trail, voters simply didn’t respond. Despite out-fundraising his competitors, Perry seems more a late-night talk-show joke than a serious candidate these days, thanks to a series of debate gaffes. The fall from grace has been particularly dramatic in Iowa, where Perry peaked in August, polling as high as 29 percent. Now he’s down to between 7 and 9 percent, trailing both Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, who once seemed long shots. Gingrich is outperforming Perry even among evangelicals—an unexpected turnabout given the former House speaker’s history of adultery and divorce. Even Perry’s jar in the coffee bean caucus is embarrassingly low. One server at the Hamburg Inn estimated Perry had only 40 beans, compared with Paul’s 400. Obama’s jar holds well into the thousands.

Iowa is Perry’s last chance to regain his status as a contender for the nomination. If Perry polls a distant fourth or fifth in Iowa, his campaign is likely finished. And his hope for a good showing in Iowa now rests with evangelicals. With only a few weeks to go, the campaign has clearly made such voters its focus. In early December, Perry released a blatantly anti-gay TV ad, introducing himself as a Christian before saying, “You don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” The ad created a firestorm.

Perry the Christian is only the most recent of Perry’s campaign personas. First there was Perry the Job Creator. After his early gaffes put him on the defensive, Perry unleashed his inner tough guy, going after Romney in debates and on the air. When that didn’t play well, and after more egregious missteps, Perry tried to portray himself as a lovable bumbler, about substance over style. Now he’s back to courting the evangelical voters who once supported him in droves. Winning them back may take a miracle.

rickperryiowa3Riley and Kris Lewis
are just the sort of people Perry must convince. They’re conservatives who take the caucus very seriously. They’re still undecided, and that’s why they’re at the Family Forum. The tickets were Riley’s birthday gift from Kris. They live in Forest City—home to Winnebago Industries—where Kris is a social worker. Riley proudly explains that he’s farming the same land his family bought in 1871. In addition to raising 20,000 hogs, he’s got 900 acres of corn and 900 acres of soybeans. A grandparent, he’s tall and trim, a typical farmer. Even though they’re conservative Christians, neither Riley nor Kris is especially interested in Rick Perry. His piety isn’t the issue.

“Rick Perry has not come up with a stance on ethanol and renewable fuels,” Riley explains. “He’s completely out of the picture on that. And if he’s going to get the agriculture vote in Iowa, he’s going to have to come out about ethanol. If he doesn’t come out about ethanol, he’s going to be flat.”

Ethanol, a fuel made from corn, is a crucial issue in Iowa. Government ethanol subsidies have given corn growers here a big boost. Perry has criticized such subsidies, along with Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. While Perry’s opposition to ethanol is bound to cost him some of the farm vote, of more concern is Perry’s lack of basic political skill: massaging his positions to seem appealing even when he disagrees with voters. Candidates like Paul and Gingrich have repeatedly presented controversial policy stances as evidence of their independent thinking and honesty with voters. Perry more often comes off as a say-anything-for-the-vote politician. Unpopular positions just make him less trusted and less popular.

He’s so bad at presenting nuanced policies that, at one critical moment, he deeply offended the anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party. When he was questioned on his support for allowing undocumented college students in Texas to pay in-state tuition, Perry said that those who disagreed didn’t “have a heart.” The statement was a major blunder with a party base eager to turn away “illegals.” In Iowa, in particular, many GOP voters want to see harsher laws against undocumented workers. At the Family Forum, Perry’s immigration stance was a frequent topic of conversation, though Luntz never raised the issue.

“I have a lot of doubts” about Perry, explained one woman, who said she was undecided and asked that her name not be printed. “The tuition for illegals—that’s a biggie.”

Another woman, an evangelical Christian with eight children and a family farm, is just the type of voter Perry’s campaign once expected to appeal to. But after the Family Forum event, she explained that Perry simply didn’t seem “strong” on issues. “If you want me to stand firm with you, you need to stand firm on your issues,” she said. “You can’t say something in one situation and then when you’re among a different group of people change it up and say it to suit what is going to go best with that group.” Perry’s earlier immigration comments had “really disappointed” her.

The problem isn’t just
his policy positions though. Perry’s campaign has also failed at basic voter outreach and organization.

In mid-November, after Perry’s polls tanked, his campaign scheduled an event at The Drake Diner. He was down but not out—there was still time to bounce back. With the Jan. 3 caucuses fast approaching, however, each event in Iowa was taking on extra importance. The diner seemed like a good place to start rebuilding. It’s across the street from Drake University, where a GOP debate would take place on Dec. 10, and it’s decked out to appeal to the student population. With a black-and-white checkered tile floor and neon lights, the diner has a nice ambiance for photo-ops, but when the campaign arrived, only 20 or so supporters showed up at the restaurant with capacity for 130.

“It’s on their shoulders to get their campaign to flood us with supporters,” said Steve Vilmain, who owns the diner with his wife Shannon. Instead of supporters, Shannon said, there was just “a lot of security and a lot of press.”

This should be the easy stuff: ensuring that the room isn’t empty when the candidate speaks. Perry doesn’t even have that many events. According to The Des Moines Register, only 8 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers had seen Perry in person. Only Jon Huntsman ranked lower. Mitt Romney, who barely campaigned in Iowa, had seen 12 percent. Bachmann had seen 20 percent. For someone counting on Iowa, Perry hasn’t exactly made himself a regular presence here. He has relied more on expensive TV ads playing constantly in the state. Television ads aren’t likely to impress Iowans, who have come to expect personal appearances from candidates. The Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker shows Perry has been in the state only 16 days since August. Between August and mid-December, he did a mere 12 meet-and-greets and public meetings, the bread and butter of the Iowa caucus culture.

As his numbers have tanked, Perry has particularly lost support among evangelical caucus-goers. And such losses have been recent. In October, according to an NBC poll, Perry’s support among likely caucus-goers had dropped to 10 percent, tied for fourth place with Bachmann. But among self-identified evangelical Christians, he still had 15 percent support, and was solidly in third place. By December, according to another NBC poll, Perry’s support among evangelicals had eroded. He had only 11 percent support from evangelicals, barely more than the 9 percent he enjoyed among all Iowa GOP caucus-goers. Perry’s drop in popularity among evangelicals was particularly damning because that support seemed to shift directly to Newt Gingrich. As Perry (and later Herman Cain) fell in the polls, the once longshot former speaker of the U.S. House had shot up in the polls, from 4 percent support among evangelical voters in October to 31 percent in December. The irony, of course, is that Gingrich is hardly an archetypal evangelical. Most pundits assumed that with his history of adultery, Gingrich wouldn’t appeal to the Christian set. But this campaign has hardly been predictable.

Perry, in many ways
, appears to be the real deal. No one knows what’s in Perry’s heart—despite Frank Luntz’s best efforts at the Family Forum—but he’s certainly got the credentials. He grew up in rural Texas and has often noted that his childhood revolved around church and Boy Scouts. Later, he married his childhood sweetheart, and stayed married. He attends church regularly in Austin and can reel off Scripture. He knows his way around Bible study and prayer breakfasts. He’s never had a major scandal about his personal life.

At the Family Forum, he received warm applause for his professions of faith. When explaining what “so help me God” meant to him, Perry got specific. “I’ve been driven to my knees multiple times as governor of the state of Texas … making decisions that are life and death,” he said. “The idea that I would walk into that without God Almighty holding me up would scare me to death.” When Herman Cain teared up talking about his wife’s support during his bout with cancer, it was Perry who reached over to comfort him. Perry did the same a few minutes later when Rick Santorum teared up talking about his disabled daughter. “There’s a hole in your soul only Jesus can fill,” Perry told the crowd, to much applause.

But Iowans with similar life stories aren’t embracing Perry. Take Dennis and Terri Gonnerman, a couple sitting in the crowd at the forum. With Dennis’ glasses and a sweater vest, it’s not surprising to discover he teaches government at a local Christian high school. Like the Perrys, the Gonnermans were high school sweethearts. Like the Perrys, they are evangelical Christians with rural roots. They’re also vehemently anti-Obama and believe the president is not a true Christian, because he supports abortion rights. They’re both concerned about the fraying moral fabric of the country. “If you remove God from everything as we have in the last few years, you see the morality of the country has really gone down,” Dennis said. “And I think that needs to be restored.”

Despite their similarities with Perry, the Gonnermans are leaning toward Gingrich. They have forgiven Gingrich for his multiple affairs. Terri believes Gingrich has “sought forgiveness from God.”

“We all sin and fall short of the glory of God,” she said, as Dennis nodded.

The Gonnermans don’t quite trust Perry. Initially they were excited to see him enter the race. They forgave the gaffes, awkward silences, and stupid answers. “I didn’t care if he couldn’t answer certain questions and he forgot something,” Terri said. “It was more of a character issue.”

Dennis pondered for a moment before chiming in. “He acts very political. To me, I don’t want another politician playing in the politico game. I want somebody who is going to do what they’re going to do for America, not for some political gain.”

Without the support of folks like the Gonnermans, Perry has little chance in Iowa. His shifting personas have left voters wondering just how much they can trust him. Gingrich may not talk or act like an evangelical, but he’s been consistent in his rhetoric and bearing. The candidate who only a few months ago hosted a prayer rally for 30,000, on the other hand, now comes off like a politician who will say anything to get elected. Evangelical voters in Iowa just aren’t getting behind Rick Perry.

You might call it a lack of faith.