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When the Iowa caucus goes to church

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

In the buildup to the Iowa caucuses, much of the media attention has been on religion — of the candidates and of Iowa's caucus-goers. Though less discussed, religion also shows up in where the meetings in Iowa's 1,681 precincts take place, as many will caucus in a church. Has the religious right captured the Republican Party, seeking to skew the election by caucusing in churches? Not quite.

While it is much more common to use schools and community centers, in 2016 about 10 percent of the state's 1,681 precincts will hold Republican caucuses in a church, while about 4 percent will hold Democratic caucuses in a church. The Republican share is larger, though not outsize considering its demographic base.

We emailed 182 Republican county chairs to find out why they would choose a church, and heard back from 80 of them. There were a range of responses, but most of them centered on standard operating procedure — €”it is the regular polling location — ”and logistics. The chairs focused on convenience, cost, space, and amenities as the dominant considerations. Most were matter-of-fact, though some were forceful, including the all-caps and baldface response that "It's because churches are handicapped accessible and don't charge a fee. The towns are so small they don't have schools."

But that doesn't explain why Republicans and Democrats differ, as they have similar logistical needs. Other party chairs noted that they or close friends had ties to the church, which might explain the difference, especially since Republicans are more likely to be regular churchgoers.

It could also be, as the response above suggests, that Republicans dominate rural areas where school space is less plentiful and church space is more so, except the data does not support that conclusion. A look at census data from 2010 shows that it's quite rare for small, rural counties to use churches as caucus sites. Among the smallest counties, the practice is almost nonexistent, and most of the largest counties that would have a broad selection of venues use at least one church.

More noteworthy is that after controlling for population size, absentee voting, and voter partisanship in the county (using the presidential vote share), there is a strong relationship between religious pluralism and choosing a church as a caucus site. To investigate this, we use the 2010 US Religious Census to measure religious diversity in Iowa counties. The data suggests that more diverse counties have more and more evenly populated religious traditions, while less diverse counties have fewer and more concentrated religious groups.

Houses of worship are more likely to be chosen as caucus locations when the county is religiously diverse and less likely when it is homogeneous. We can only speculate about the cause, but perhaps party chairs are less likely to choose a church as a caucus site when counties only have a few dominant groups for fear that choosing one may alienate the others. Choosing a church when there is a wide diversity of groups sends a less potent signal.

While some of these patterns of choosing a church as a caucus site have accrued across time and do not appear to be central in the decision-making of today's party chairs, importantly they do not accord with conventional wisdom. While presidential candidates highlight divisions to attract caucus voters, the local party leadership makes choices to minimize divisiveness. Republicans are more likely to choose religious locations, although they appear sensitive to where they make these choices.

Paul A. Djupe is an associate professor of political science at Denison University, an affiliated scholar with Public Religion Research Institute, and co-editor of the Cambridge journal Politics and Religion.

Andrew R. Lewis is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.