The most recent polls from Iowa all show Newt Gingrich on the rise. The latest, conducted by Insider Advantage for the conservative site Newsmax.com has the former House Speaker with a sudden towering lead, commanding 28.1 percent of the vote. In that poll he’s followed by Ron Paul with 13.3 percent and Mitt Romney with 11.5 percent. But even with these numbers, Iowa’s often-critical evangelicals still don’t seem convinced that Newt Gingrich is their guy.
The Des Moines Register reports that evangelicals are split on the new frontrunner and many religious leaders flat out reject him. “He is admirable in many ways, but I won’t back him. I don’t trust him,” Iowa minister Cary Gordon told the Register.
The evangelicals who don’t trust Newt have good reason: he’s switched positions on a number of issues, including those dear to social conservatives such as stem cell research and abortion. Take, for instance, a 2001 interview on stem cell science in which he told Bill O’Reilly, “I think the president, I hope the president, will find a way to agree that there ought to be federally funded research.”
Gingrich may also run into trouble on the issue of abortion, even though he is against it, because he has supported funding abortions for poor women in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk. Gingrich still supports these exceptions to anti-abortion laws although he has flipped on his support of whether tax dollars should cover abortions in these instances. Earlier this year he signed the controversial pro-life pledge from PAC Susan B. Anthony’s List, promising to end taxpayer funding of abortion. Still, there are trust issues, especially since many Iowa voters prefer Santorum and Bachmann’s ‘no exceptions’ position on abortion.
Evangelical Iowa radio host Steve Deace conducted a focus group with eleven evangelicals on Monday. The impression he got after two hours and fourteen questions was that evangelicals remain wary of Gingrich. They haven’t forgotten his divorces or, more importantly, his affairs. But perhaps most telling, though evangelicals prefer Santorum and Bachmann for their hardline views on social issues, they think Gingrich will win.
This point may be key to Gingrich’s success. In past years, Iowa Republicans — known as fierce social conservatives — have voted based on their beliefs; they picked Mike Huckabee in 2008, even though he was unlikely to win the nomination. But this time may be different. Social issues seem to be taking a back seat to the overarching issue of the economy.
Iowa voters seem to be putting their thumbs in the wind to get a sense of where the nation is going, rather than the other way around. And what they are sensing now is an unmistakable Gingrich surge as he climbs nationally, holding a lead in South Carolina, and being second only to Romney in New Hampshire. Newt is “sufficiently conservative,”one conservative Christian voter in Iowa put it to the Register, “I’m hearing that he’s the candidate who’s ready for the job.”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.