Yes, Huckabee won big in 2008 with 34.4% of caucus-goers supporting him. But the combined vote of his five principal rivals — 65.2% — gives the lie to belief in automatic evangelical domination since none of those competitors (Romney, part-time Hollywood actor Fred Thompson, John McCain, Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani) enjoyed robust support in the Christian conservative community.
Four years later, the Iowa results provided even less evidence of the centrality of religious voters or religious issues. Santorum managed to claim first place (by 34 votes over Romney) with his tireless, heartfelt appeals to evangelicals, but his leading competitors (Romney, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, who could hardly count as religious rabble-rousers) nonetheless combined to out-poll him (59.2% to 24.6%) without particular emphasis on social issues. Even in states like Iowa with their devout and church-going population, evangelical sentiments don’t necessarily dictate voting.
None of the slate of candidates in 2016 can afford to ignore or dismiss Christian conservatives, who remain an essential element in the Republican Party base. As more than a quarter of the total electorate in 2012, exit polls show that these believers made up a larger voting bloc than African-Americans (13%) and Latinos (10%)combined. Nevertheless, the widely held belief that conservatives can carry the day by discovering — or manufacturing — invisible armies of Christian true believers represents the sort of groundless wishful thinking that only wrecks campaigns and undermines the cause.