As the Iowa Straw Poll came to life Saturday morning, a man wearing an NRA T-shirt and driving a golf cart for Michele Bachmann’s campaign plowed into a group of people.
Before day’s end, Bachmann’s campaign similarly rode to victory in the first test of campaign organization. Her success came in large part because of her religious outreach.
With 29 percent of the vote, the Minnesota congresswoman barely edged out U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s 28 percent. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out of the race on Sunday after placing a distant third with only 14 percent.
Pawlenty had fought Bachmann to win support of conservative evangelicals, who are a key demographic in Iowa Republican contests.
In previous campaigns, the Straw Poll has helped launch the campaigns of candidates like Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee – both of whom rode a wave of conservative evangelical voters to strong finishes in 1987 and 2007 respectively.
The Straw Poll has also ended campaigns of presidential hopefuls like Elizabeth Dole in 1999 and Sam Brownback in 2007.
Bachmann, who previously said she felt “called” by God to run for president, frequently injects Christian references into her campaign speeches. She also spent many Sundays leading up to Saturday’s Straw Poll speaking in churches across the Hawkeye state.
On the Sunday before the Straw Poll, Bachmann attended the nondenominational Point of Grace Church in Waukee, a suburb of Des Moines. During the service, she mentioned troubles facing the nation, adding that “[T]his is a time that we need to be encouraged this week, not discouraged.”
During the service, Bachmann read from Philippians 4, after which the congregation cheered. Jeff Mullen, the church’s pastor, then joined Bachmann at the pulpit.
“There are some candidates who start running, and have this come-to-Jesus moment,” Mullen said as he held up Bachmann’s Bible. “What I love about this Bible … is how well it’s used.”
A few days before the church service, Bachmann’s campaign released a list of more than 100 Iowa pastors and church leaders who endorsed her candidacy. Although the list did not include well-known pastors, it did include Mullen – the pastor who would praise Bachmann from the pulpit just a couple of days later.
Similarly, Bachmann’s campaign worked to mobilize the home school movement to turn out for her at the Straw Poll. This mostly behind-the-scenes effort mirrored a key component of Huckabee’s surprise second-place finish in the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll.
As attendees at this year’s Straw Poll arrived at Bachmann’s air-conditioned tent, they could pick up information about Bachmann and fill up on free hot dogs, corn dogs, ice cream, cinnamon rolls and “beef sundaes” (beef topped with mashed potatoes and gravy with a plum tomato on top).
As the campaign sought to energize her supporters, attendees could also enjoy a full schedule of speakers and performers, including country star Randy Travis and the worship leader for Thomas Road Baptist Church (started by the late Jerry Falwell).
“Who’s excited about sending a message to Washington that the march towards socialism will soon come to an end?” Green asked an enthusiastic crowd.
“Anybody interested in sending a message to Barack Obama that his days as president are numbered? I like the way Michele said it the other night in the debate: he will be ‘a one-term president.’ How many of you are excited about the fact that you actually get to go vote for somebody you can feel good about voting for today? We finally get to choose a patriot instead of a politician.”
Bachmann also joined the “ValuesBus,” a political outreach effort by FRC Action (Family Research Council), National Organization for Marriage and Susan B. Anthony List to make social issues a top priority among Straw Poll voters.
Other candidates who joined the “Values Bus” for various stops were Pawlenty, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, talk show host Herman Cain and U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter.
“Obviously this is a state where people care about those issues,” FRC Action President Tony Perkins told EthicsDaily.com as he explained why he wanted more attention to social issues.
He added that the social issues and the economic issues are “very clearly connected.”
Similarly, long-shot presidential hopeful McCotter told EthicsDaily.com that he hoped the connection between social and economic issues would remain clear to voters.
“There are some who will try to draw distinction between social conservatives or economic conservatives,” McCotter stated. “But the reality is you need a virtuous citizenry to have a prosperous economy. So I want to make sure that we understand that they’re both parts of the conservative movement, and they’re not at odds with each other, they’re actually complementary.”
As with other candidates, Pawlenty particularly sought to beat Bachmann by appealing to conservative evangelicals. He frequently mixed religious references into his speeches, and his Straw Poll tent featured Christian band Sonicflood.
In addition to enjoying free barbecue and Dairy Queen Blizzards, attendees at Pawlenty’s tent also saw a cameo by Huckabee as he briefly joined Sonicflood to play the bass guitar.
Although not a candidate, Huckabee is still a big draw among Iowa conservative activists. Huckabee also briefly joined musicians at the Straw Poll tents of Santorum and Cain.
As nearly 17,000 Iowa Republican activists voted in Ames, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced in South Carolina that he would jump into the presidential race.
Although Perry was not on the Straw Poll ballot, his supporters launched a write-in campaign that brought in an impressive 4 percent of the vote – putting him in sixth place and ahead of candidates actually on the ballot like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (who skipped the Straw Poll) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (who was at the Straw Poll but did not have the money for a tent).
Bob Schuman, chairman of Americans for Perry (the group that led the write-in campaign) told EthicsDaily.com that he believed Perry’s Aug. 6 prayer rally at Reliant Stadium in Houston would help Perry’s showing in the Straw Poll and in the overall presidential race. Perry frequently insisted the event was not designed to advance any political campaign.
“The social conservatives are pretty prominent in this state,” Schuman said. “I think people in Iowa know what’s in his heart and I think it helps him.”
Last week before his presidential announcement, Perry said he had decided to run for president about 45 days earlier, meaning he had already decided to run well before hosting the Aug. 6 rally.
The timeline suggests Perry decided a few days after he attended a behind-closed-doors meeting organized by evangelist James Robison.
Bachmann’s straw poll victory and Perry’s entry into the race have created a three-person race in national polls as Bachmann, Perry and Romney far outpace the rest of the candidates.
With the Iowa caucuses kicking off the voting early next year, both Bachmann and Perry are expected to continue heavily courting conservative evangelical voters while Romney instead looks to New Hampshire to launch his campaign.
Everyone thrown to the ground by Bachmann’s runaway golf cart on Saturday walked away OK, but Bachmann’s campaign dealt a fatal blow to Pawlenty’s candidacy and perhaps the campaigns of second-tier candidates like Cain.
What remains unknown is whether Bachmann can survive the candidacy of Perry.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.