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  • Writer's pictureLibby Johnson

Caucus ’88: The Rise of the Iowa Evangelical

This is the fifth installment in a series of 13 blog posts, each covering the events of a specific historic caucus and placing it in its political context. Each post will be accompanied by reference material currently archived at the Drake University Political Papers Archive.


In the summer of 1987, more than 3,800 Iowa Republicans crowded into a stadium on the Iowa State University campus. These voters navigated through huge crowds of people, waited in line in the hot sun, spent $25 on a ticket to get in, and were repaid for their efforts by getting to write down one name on a small sheet of paper. The occasion was the first unofficial presidential preference vote of the Iowa caucus cycle: the Ames Straw Poll. And in 1988, the candidate who everyone was talking about in Ames was televangelist Pat Robertson. A conservative pastor from Virginia who amassed a fortune and a following by founding the Christian Broadcasting Network, he turned to politics later in his career in an effort to return America to what it's supposed to be.” His message stuck: Robertson won the straw poll by more than 300 votes, followed by the more mainstream candidates Kansas Senator Bob Dole and Vice President George H. W. Bush.



The results of the Ames Straw Poll in 1987 may have been a shock to establishment Republicans, but the sea of straw hats labeled “Robertson” in the crowd in Ames suggested otherwise. 1988 was the first presidential election cycle in which Evangelical Christian voters as a bloc had a clear and decisive impact on the outcome of the race, and that movement found its footing right here in Iowa.


The Ames Straw Poll is, by design, an inaccurate representation of Iowa Republican voters at large. As a party fundraiser, it leaves out voters who are unable to pay the entrance fee. It lacks the randomness factors of modern presidential polls, resulting in the attendance of a specific subset of hyper-engaged Republican voters. It is also easy to sway the results, with many campaigns making the decision to buy tickets for their supporters or provide transportation to Ames for out-of-town voters. Still, people pay attention to it, and any amount of study on the Iowa Caucuses will tell you that attention can make or break a presidential campaign.

 

The results of the 1987 Ames Straw Poll, and later the Iowa Caucuses, were a particular shock to George H. W. Bush. As Vice President for an extremely popular two-term President, Bush expected something akin to Mondale’s command of the 1984 Democratic field when he entered the race. Not only was Bush returning with an even more polished resume to support his candidacy, but his victory in the 1980 caucus showed that he had the skills to perform well amongst a base of Iowa voters. The popularity of Evangelical candidates among Iowans resulted in Bush earning only 19% in the 1988 Iowa caucus, yet he went on to win the Republican nomination and later the presidency. In the end, Bob Dole won the Republican caucus, with Pat Robertson coming in second.



1988 was also the first caucus cycle in which there was not an incumbent running from either party, so the Democratic field was just as competitive as the Republican field. This cycle featured many repeat candidates as well as newcomers. Gary Hart, for example, whose presidential career looked promising after a strong second place finish in the Iowa Caucus against Walter Mondale in 1984, dropped to seventh place in 1988 after reporters discovered an extramarital affair he was having.



Jesse Jackson was back, having increased his support in the caucus by nearly 7% from 1984. 1988 saw the first appearances by Al Gore and Joe Biden, who would each return to Iowa in later years with stronger performances. Illinois Senator Paul Simon made a strong showing, coming in second in the Democratic caucus. In the end, popular Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt took home the victory, although his momentum in the race would slow shortly afterwards. 1988 must have been the year of the bronze medal, because just like Bush, third place finisher and Massachusetts Senator Mike Dukakis went on to win his party’s nomination.


In the first of many cycles in which the support of Evangelical Iowan voters was instrumental, Pat Robertson’s unexpected victory in the Ames Straw Poll and his strong performance in the caucus showed how much the ideological makeup of the Republican party was shifting following the Reagan Revolution. At this early date, few suspected just how significant the shift in political power to Evangelical voters would become, but Robertson’s success in Ames was an early sign of the direction that the country was headed. In recent years, Iowa Republican voters have disproportionately favored Evangelical-type conservative candidates, making a small group of Iowa Christians in 1988 the first to pick up on a trend that influences politics to this day.

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