My New York friends congratulated me for my “bravery” when I headed off to cover evangelical supporters of Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign in Iowa shortly before Christmas. I grew up in Virginia at a time when the state’s Christian right was gaining strength, but have spent most of my adult life in liberal circles where evangelicals—if there were any—kept their faith largely to themselves.
During the days I spent following Huckabee’s campaign swing, I met some Christians who conformed to my friends’ expectations: home-schoolers, knee-jerk fundamentalists, voters for whom “family values” trumped all other issues. But I seemed to meet just as many evangelical voters who defied the stereotype. In Ames, there was the engineering grad student who was concerned about energy independence and was choosing between Huckabee and the libertarian Ron Paul. In Des Moines, a sixty-something woman whispered to me behind her husband’s back that she was uncomfortable with the hard-right line on abortion and gay unions. In Waterloo, I spoke by phone with a member of Huckabee’s “Pastors Council” who mentioned he was African American. At stop after stop, Christian voters—along with a good number of Huckabee supporters who said they were not regular churchgoers—cited economic concerns as often as social ones. And when I stepped off the trail to cover Christmas services at a Charismatic church, I even met evangelical Democrats.
So I was surprised on December 21, 2007, when The New York Times asserted that, “People who have been coming to Mr. Huckabee’s rallies are mainly Christian activists.” I talked to a lot of churchgoers, sure, but they didn’t strike me as any more “activist” than any Iowan who participates in the state’s caucuses. On election night, January 3, I hoped that the exit polls would reflect the diversity I had seen among Iowa evangelicals. But reporters relying on the National Election Pool, the exit-polling consortium of major news outlets, reported that evangelicals or born-again Christians (terms the NEP considers interchangeable) accounted for 60 percent of GOP caucus-goers. Period. There was no mention of evangelical Democrats, no attempt to parse those terms. And the fact that Huckabee defeated his closest rival, Mitt Romney, by twenty-seven points among these evangelical and born-again voters reinforced the perception that his campaign was fueled by passionate “Christian activists.”
Had I totally missed the forest for the trees, overemphasizing the exceptions that proved the rule about evangelical Christians? Maybe. But when I looked closely at the polling myself—both the exit polls and general polling about religion and politics—I found it to be incomplete and confusing, confirming on its surface the assumptions that many reporters carry with them when they parachute into places like Iowa. For instance, reporters would have had a hard time finding evidence of evangelical influence in the state’s Democratic caucuses even if they had thought to look for it—the NEP didn’t ask Democrats about their religious affiliation. This is an especially egregious example of the many ways polling data can help reporters miss the trees from their bird’s-eye view of the forest.
Paul Vitello, the Times reporter who concluded that Huckabee’s audiences were mostly “Christian activists,” told me in an interview, “Iowa is surprisingly homogenous to an overwhelming extent .Out there, I saw absolutely no tension [about excluding people of other faiths around Christmas time], and it was that lack of tension that I found interesting.” He said he did not dig too deeply into the pre-election polling, but had read about conservative evangelicals and their support for Huckabee. His interviews confirmed the impression he had before he set out, he said, as did the returns on primary day.