With the help of conservative evangelicals, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum surged to a virtual first-place tie in Tuesday’s Republican caucuses in Iowa.
Ending with a quarter of the vote and a mere eight votes behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Santorum rose dramatically from the bottom of the polls in just a couple of weeks.
Santorum’s strong finish pushed U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who placed a distant sixth, out of the race.
It also hurts the prospects of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who finished fourth and fifth, respectively. The Iowa vote also suggests problems for Romney, who remains unable to increase his support beyond one-quarter of Republicans.
Santorum received support from 32 percent of self-identified “born-again” or “evangelical” voters. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who took a close third overall, captured 18 percent of the evangelical vote. Romney, Gingrich and Rick Perry each took 14 percent of the evangelical vote.
In contrast, Romney won 38 percent of the non-evangelical vote, followed by Paul’s 26 percent and Santorum’s 14 percent.
Gingrich gained the support of 12 percent of non-evangelicals and Perry only captured 5 percent. Bachmann won 6 percent of the evangelical vote and 3 percent of the non-evangelical vote.
The split among evangelical voters allowed Romney to squeak out a win, even though he garnered the same overall percentage as in 2008 when he lost by 9 percentage points to former Arkansas Gov. and Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee.
Yet, evangelicals still demonstrated their importance in the first-in-the-nation vote by pushing Paul and especially Santorum into the front of the pack with Romney.
Although often overlooked, Paul’s campaign reached out to conservative evangelicals throughout the Iowa campaign, which helped him double his showing from four years ago.
Paul’s religious outreach is led by Doug Wead, who advised both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush on religious-political matters.
Santorum, who frequently invokes God in campaign speeches, clearly recognized the role his faith-based appeals played in his success Tuesday night.
After triumphantly declaring “Game on!” Santorum started his speech by quoting C.S. Lewis, an author popular among evangelicals. Santorum also thanked God for help during the campaign.
“People have asked me how I’ve done this – sitting back at the polls and not getting a whole lot of attention paid to us,” Santorum said. “‘How did you keep going out to Iowa, 99 counties and 381 town hall meetings and speeches?’ Well, every morning when I was getting up in the morning to take on that challenge, I’ve required a strength from another particular friendship – one that is sacred. I’ve survived the challenges so far by the daily grace that comes from God.”
“For giving me his grace every day, for loving me – warts and all, I offer a public thanks to God,” Santorum added to cheers and applause.
Bachmann also thanked God as she thanked family members, friends and campaign workers.
“But more than anything, I thank the God who loves us, the God who gave us life, who gave us our being, who created and drew this nation into existence,” Bachmann said. “It is to the God of our fathers that we give praise this evening.”
Just before the Iowa caucuses, Bachmann predicted a “miraculous” outcome Tuesday despite the fact she was sitting at the bottom of the polls.
“We’re believing in a miracle because we know, I know, the one who gives miracles,” she said, months after claiming God called her to run for president.
Although Bachmann said during her Tuesday evening concession speech that she was staying in the race, on Wednesday morning she canceled her South Carolina campaign plans and then dropped out.
In a speech filled with religious references, Bachmann announced the suspension of her campaign.
She declared that she ran for president “foremost as an American citizen who believes in the foundation and in the greatness of our American principles – and our principles derive their meaning from the founders’ beliefs, which were rooted in the immutable truths of the Holy Scripture, the Bible.”
“I look forward to the next chapter in God’s plan,” Bachmann said as she ended her speech. “He has one for each of us, you know, if we will only cooperate with him.”
Perry, who once led in national polls before also dropping dramatically, announced during his concession speech Tuesday night that he was going “to return to Texas, assess the results of tonight’s caucus, determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race.”
However, rather than dropping out, Perry tweeted Wednesday morning that he was headed to campaign in South Carolina.
Last summer, EthicsDaily.com broke the news that Perry spoke at a closed-door meeting of nearly 80 conservative pastors and leaders organized by evangelist James Robison.
The June meeting came as Perry considered whether to run for president. Several Southern Baptists participated in the meeting designed to find a new Ronald Reagan as the group hopes to defeat President Barack Obama.
Robison’s group previously met in September 2010.
Robison led a similar effort prior to the 1980 presidential election as he sought to defeat then-President Jimmy Carter. That effort culminated in an August 1980 rally in Dallas with then-Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan as the key speaker.
Perry’s poor debate performances quickly deflated his poll numbers. Although some from Robison’s group remained supportive of him – like RobertJeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas – others shifted their support to Gingrich.
Now, Paul Pressler, a former first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, will host a meeting of top conservative Christian leaders for a private meeting “with the purpose of attempting to unite and to come to a consensus on which Republican Presidential candidate or candidates to support, or which not to support.”
It is unclear if the group, which overlaps with Robison’s, is a continuation of Robison’s efforts or a new effort.
Conservative Christian evangelicals have fewer candidates to choose from – with Herman Cain and now Bachmann out – but they still seem split between Perry, Gingrich and Santorum.
Romney seems poised to benefit from this divide unless consensus can be reached on Pressler’s Texas ranch.