Des Moines, Iowa — Unremarkable as it may look, the Sunday-morning crowd at the Evangelical Covenant Church, a small religious institution on the east side of this Midwestern city, has been the subject of months of speculation among presidential pollsters.
The congregation is modest, perhaps 60 people, many with children in tow. They sit patiently through an hour-long sermon about Luke – “the first missionary,” as pastor Steve Jones describes him. Many in the audience have done missionary work themselves; a screen in the lobby rotates through photographs of church members on mission trips in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.
This group – evangelical, mostly white, and solidly middle-class – has long been the Republican party’s most reliable base.
But pundits have wondered whether they would rally this year behind Mitt Romney, a candidate with a history of moderate, even liberal positions on social issues, and a member of the Mormon church, a religion viewed with scepticism by some mainstream Christians.
A visit to this church, and interviews with social conservatives across the state, suggests that they will back the Republican candidate on election day. An increasingly urban evangelical population, concerned with both social issues and the economy, seems set to vote for Romney, despite their hang-ups.
“Romney has a better handle on [the] economic woes that the United States is facing,” said Loren Long, a parishioner here. “Also, he’s much more pro-family – pro-moral decency – than I think our present administration is.”
The latest polls back this up, too: A Pew Research Centre survey released earlier this month shows Romney winning 74 per cent of the white evangelical vote, roughly the same level as the last two Republican presidential candidates.
But Romney hasn’t erased all of their doubts, or fired up this critical segment of his base. Several worshippers said they hadn’t followed this election closely – a trend usually associated with lower levels of voter enthusiasm. Others admitted that Romney’s religious beliefs could be a concern.
“I’m not sure about all of Romney’s views as a Mormon, and that’s something that I’m looking into more,” said Stacia Weber, a part-time nurse sitting in the back with her three children, who added that Obama “seems to be a very good Christian man”.
‘The audible voice of God’
Perhaps the most vocal Romney sceptic in town has been Steve Deace, the Des Moines-based host of a popular conservative talk radio program.
Deace explains why he thinks the Republican base isn't excited about Romney in these extended interview clips
He doesn’t mince words, calling Romney “the very kind of elitist, white, rich, corporatist Republican that most of middle America just absolutely hates”.
“I’ve pretty much had the same position all along, which is that I will need to hear the audible voice of God to give me permission to vote for Romney,” he said. “And so far it has been silent.”
The main issue, for Deace, is the bewildering range of positions Romney has adopted on various issues. “Essentially every single issue I care about, he’s either betrayed me on or threatened to betray me on,” Deace said.
Abortion tops the list: Romney took a pro-choice position when he ran for office in Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the union. He declared abortion a settled issue, promising to "sustain and support" Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision which enshrined a woman's right to an abortion.
Romney has since reinvented himself as anti-abortion, though he does support exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and the health of the mother, which is still too permissive for some evangelicals.
Similarly, during his 1994 Senate campaign, he once promised to push for "full equality" for gays and lesbians, and promised to be a better advocate than his opponent, Senator Edward Kennedy. (Massachusetts is one of seven states which have legalised same-sex marriage.) Today, he claims to oppose same-sex marriage and civil unions.
Larry Johnson, a self-employed painter and an elder at the church, said he would support “the pro-life candidate,” but when I asked him who that was, he wouldn’t say. Johnson acknowledged he’d heard about Romney’s shifting views on the issue.
“I guess I haven’t listened deeply to all of his speaking or rhetoric, or whatever you want to call it,” Johnson said.
Still, Bob Vander Plaats, the director of The Family Leader, a conservative advocacy group here, predicted that many voters would forgive Romney for his past positions.
“It’s not where you begin, it’s where you end up,” he said. “It gives us pause because of where he’s been, but we’re very encouraged by where he’s at today. Everybody goes through a maturity process.”
Unity, but little enthusiasm?
Romney was not a first choice for many of Iowa’s evangelicals during the caucus in January: He received 25 per cent of the votes statewide, but just 14 per cent among evangelicals.
Vander Plaats talks about Romney's policy "evolution" in these extended interview clips
Mark Parlee, a construction consultant, said he was disappointed when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee – a popular figure among evangelicals – decided not to run. “I really like the way he treats people,” Parlee said.
Huckabee, of course, did not join the race, and Mitt Romney went on to win the Republican nomination after a months-long battle.
And Parlee, like many evangelicals here, now seems to agree with Vander Plaats’ “maturity” comments: He says will vote for Romney, in large part because the Republican nominee chose Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. He also stressed that economic policy was as important to him as social issues.
“This time, I look at a lot of the issues,” he said. “I’m looking more at the people Romney has with him than [at] him himself. He appears to be a good man with good family values… but I want to see it.”
John McCain had a similar problem in 2008. He had a history of moderate social positions, and of criticising the religious right; he once accused George W Bush of pandering to what he called the “agents of intolerance”.
He still won this demographic group handily, with 73 per cent of the vote, according to exit polls – but that was a six-point decline compared to their support for George W Bush in 2009. Obama actually made inroads among younger evangelicals, where he picked up 30 per cent of the vote - which is considered impressive for a Democratic candidate.
Vander Plaats argued that this election would be different – because Obama’s policies, particularly his decision to endorse same-sex marriage, would mobilise evangelical voters against him.
“Obama has had an extraordinary way to unite conservatives – not around Mitt Romney, but against Barack Obama,” he said.
“I believe the base is going to be motivated… now, whether they vote against Obama or for Romney, I think Romney would take either one.”
But unity and enthusiasm are not the same thing. Weber said she hadn’t followed the election closely; Johnson described the Republican candidate as “not the best choice” (and, like so many other Republicans, called Romney “the lesser of two evils, maybe”). He lamented that many Christians were “tak[ing] a passive stance” towards this election.
Deace predicted that evangelical turnout would be depressed, and that Romney would also lose ground among the broader coalition of “social conservatives,” a group which includes mainline Protestants and Catholics.
“I suspect you will see Romney, despite Mormonism, I think you’ll see Romney get about the same percentage of that vote that John McCain got, maybe even do a little bit better,” Deace said. “But I think the overall turnout of that vote probably will be not what he needs.”
Deace fully expects Romney to lose – and he's not entirely unhappy about that. He predicted that a loss in November would force the Republican party to nominate more conservative candidates in the future.
“If Romney does lose, you will see a civil war within the Republican party,” he added. “The grass roots will look like the French storming the Bastille.”