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Political Mercury

The 12 percent: Is it politically fatal for Ernst? Can a candidate in modern Iowa be too religious, too rural?


Mitt Romney had his 47 percent — the portion of the American electorate he famously dismissed.

The number is closely associated with the Massachusetts Republican’s failed 2012 campaign.

U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican whom Romney endorses, faces her own challenging political figure — call it The 12 percent, a muscular swing vote of the unchurched that’s been largely obscured in analysis of modern Iowa politics.

In J. Ann Selzer’s final Iowa Poll before the 2012 presidential election, conducted for The Des Moines Register, some expected trends emerged. Self-identified religious people were more likely to vote for Romney.

Iowa Catholics were going for Romney by 14 percent, Hawkeye State Protestants by 6 percent. A fraction of the state identifies with other organized religions. That’s 88 percent of the electorate in Iowa. So how did President Barack Obama carry Iowa 52 percent to 46 percent?

Prep Iowa

Non-religious people, those who told pollsters they had no church or faith, the “none” category, went heavily for the president. The Iowa Poll days before the election showed that demographic in the president’s camp by 43 points.

On Election Day, exit polls showed President Obama, a Democrat, with 75 percent of the “no religion” vote, compared with 22 percent for Romney — a door-busting 53 point margin.

“This is a group that you will now see rising,” Selzer said.

She added, “People don’t think of it as a swing group.”

The exit polls showed that Catholics and Protestants in Iowa went with Romney on Election Day, by 5 percent and 7 percent, respectively, Selzer said.

Taken collectively, Selzer said, the voting data on the unchurched led to one clear conclusion. “It actually swung the election,” Selzer said.

Selzer said the numbers jumped out at her when she first spotted them in pre-election polling reports.

“This isn’t the way we understand Iowa to be,” said Selzer, president of West Des Moines-based Selzer & Company Inc. — a polling firm that has received post-election accolades for predicting the relatively wide margin for Obama when many peers saw the race as razor-thin.

In an interview, Selzer said she expects the 2014 electorate to be different in makeup — older and whiter — than for presidential election years.

“It’s more conservative rather than less,” Selzer said.

But she said the effect of the unchurched on the election remains an “interesting observation.”

Romney, seeking to become the nation’s first Mormon president, sought to downplay his religion in favor of an economic message and challenges to Obama’s leadership abroad.

Ernst runs to her faith, making it a high-profile part of her biography.

Moments into her acceptance speech after lapping four other contenders in the GOP primary, Ernst continued her highly effective branding as a product of rural Iowa.

“The church that I was raised in is the church where I married my husband, Gail,” Ernst said of Mamrelund Lutheran Church of Stanton during her acceptance speech June 3. “And it’s the same church that Libby was baptized in. And it’s the same church where I teach Sunday school today. And now some in Washington may call that kinda small.”

She talked of hog castration and the clever Iowa frugality of wearing spent bread bags over her footwear to keep them dry and durable as a youngster.

Meanwhile, her website “issues” section leads with Ernst’s religious-based position on abortion. “Joni believes life begins at conception,” is the first comment that greets visitors in that corner of her online campaign presence. It’s positioned above her thoughts on scrapping the tax code, fiscal responsibility and foreign policy — and the Second Amendment.

The Ernst strategy resonated with primary voters, and recent polls show Ernst well-positioned in her general-election match-up with U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo, in the race to succeed retiring liberal icon Sen. Tom Harkin.

“She appears to be a reasonably intelligent woman who had some good ads,” said former Republican Lt. Gov. Art Neu.

State Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, said Ernst brings formidable credentials to the race.

“No. 1, I trust her,” Baudler, who lives north of Greenfield, said in an interview. “No. 2, out of that whole group, she’s the one that can beat Bruce Braley. I’m convinced of that.”

Ernst, a former Montgomery County auditor, is a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard who served in Kuwait and Iraq.

Baudler said several years ago he called Braley “a rising star in the Democratic Party.” But Braley is making some critical mistakes, said Baudler.

But, taking in account Selzer’s 2012 polling — the emergence of the roughly 12 percent of unchurched voters — is Ernst in jeopardy of too much rural choreography, of fashioning an image and molding an agenda alienating to that new swing voter Selzer identified?

“If you know her, no,” U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, said in an interview. “I don’t think you see that. She grew up on a farm. And, of course, I’ve been to her home. I know Joni. There’s something about a person’s character that comes through.”

Bottom line, King said, Ernst brings a strong resume to the race.

“You can overdo something. You can underdo something,” King said. But that’s subjective analysis, he said.

Meanwhile, Harkin sees an effective statewide candidate as having dual appeal, hitting both rural and urban chords, and he said Ernst is lacking with the latter.

“You’ve got to keep in mind she comes from Red Oak, Montgomery County, and if I’m not mistaken, I don’t know that they’ve ever elected a Democrat down there,” Harkin said in an interview. “But maybe somewhere along the line. And I think that her views and her record are one that indicate that — that sort of one-party approach. And I think that she’s going to have great difficulty in taking those views and her record to the more heavily populated parts of Iowa, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Dubuque, Quad Cities, Iowa City, Des Moines, Mason City. Anything east of Interstate 35, I think she might have a problem.”

Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt notes that Ernst performed well in the GOP primary in Polk County. What’s more, she is running on issues with the potential to cut across the rural-urban divide, fiscal conservatism and opposition to the Affordable Care Act, for example.

burns doug 12-10-25“As long as she doesn’t castrate any more hogs and sticks to these other issues, I think she can connect with the suburban voter,” Schmidt said. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.                 

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