Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) speaks to members of the media in the spin room following the NBC News Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County on November 8, 2023 in Miami, Florida. Credit - Anna Moneymaker-Getty Images
Why did Tim Scott fail in a state that usually embraces evangelicals? Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz won the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2008, 2012 and 2016, respectively. All self-identify as evangelical Christians. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, also an evangelical Christian, suspended his presidential campaign last weekend. Scott was the only Republican in the race in the same lane as Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz. So why did Scott, the “joyful warrior,” flame out in Iowa? While former President Donald Trump is the Republican juggernaut to beat for now, why did Scott do so badly even against other Republicans without the evangelical enthusiasm that he should have had. The most recent Des Moines Register poll had Scott (7%) losing ground and running a distant fourth behind Trump (43%), Ron DeSantis (16%), and Nikki Haley (16%) in a state where Iowa Republicans love evangelical presidential candidates.
I believe there are three reasons Scott failed. First, he didn’t engage Iowa media as effectively as Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz did. Second, his campaign made some poor decisions. Third, and perhaps most surprisingly, his messaging about his faith to Iowans flopped.
With respect to the media, I can’t count the number of times I interviewed Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz. One could hardly walk down the street and not trip over Santorum during the 2012 cycle. In the beginning, it looked like Scott would use the same media strategy his predecessors did. On May 10 I received a phone call from an area code I didn’t recognize. I answered, and the voice on the other end said something like, “This is Tim Scott, and I hear that you are someone in the Iowa media I should get to know.”
At the time, I worked for KNIA/KRLS Radio in Knoxville/Pella/Indianola, Iowa. I’ve since retired. While I have interviewed many presidential candidates over the years, I don’t remember a presidential candidate calling me directly. We spoke for a few minutes and I was impressed by how thoughtful and friendly he was on the call. I asked him if he wanted to do an interview there and then over the phone, but he told me he would rather wait and do it in person.
My immediate thought was that if Scott interacted with small-town media like he did with me, he had a shot at doing well in the caucuses. Candidates working with small-town Iowa media is critical during caucus time. Eventual Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden found time to talk with me and other small-town Iowa media, while candidates Clinton and McCain were mostly “too busy.” See how that turned out.
Unlike Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz, Scott avoided press gaggles at every event I attended, focusing instead on one on-ones with Des Moines and national media. Even at the Family Leader Summit with an evangelical crowd, he didn’t have a general press availability. And my interview with Scott? It never happened. He never returned my texts.
With respect to decisions made by his team, the “joyful warrior” in Scott wasn’t exactly joyful, and his messaging wasn’t as positive as promised. He presented the same grievance messages the other candidates did, even in his campaign announcement video, and his policies were well in line with theirs, with little or nothing to differentiate himself from the other candidates. As others have said, he didn’t seem ready for the national stage.
Scott, Haley, and Ramaswamy, the three candidates of color, all pandered to their mostly all-white audiences on race, declaring that systemic racism doesn’t exist in our country despite evidence to the contrary. But Scott's suggestion that slavery wasn’t as bad as President Lyndon Johnson's “Great Society” programs took the pandering to a new level.
Scott didn’t make a positive impression in the debates, and the staffer who suggested that he criticize Nikki Haley on the debate stage for the cost of curtains when she was the ambassador to the U.N. should find another line of work.
On the stump, Scott spoke respectfully, lovingly, and at length of the role his mother played in his life. However, this emphasis didn’t exactly evoke strength. The leader of the free world shouldn’t be afraid of his own mother. And, I’m surprised that she didn’t teach him not to criticize another woman over her choice of drapes.
These were the mistakes of an inexperienced candidate getting bad advice from his campaign.
Yet, the thing that I believe helped stall Scott’s candidacy here most was what many saw as his strength in Iowa--his faith. In particular, the great lengths to which he shared his personal testimony about his faith journey, ad nauseum. We all know people who share their Christian testimonies like Scott does and we tend to avoid them—even at church socials. We avoid them because at best they are long, boring, and they suck all of the energy out of a room. At worst they are self-serving and performative, suggesting to everyone around them that they are the “better” Christian. Furthermore, only about 40% of Iowa Republicans say they are evangelical, and 55% are devoutly religious. To those who are not evangelical, or devout, Scott’s extended discussion of his faith could be off-putting when they would rather hear what problems he might solve.
It’s also likely true that Trump, DeSantis, and even Haley are receiving evangelical support that Scott was hoping to get because people may think they present a more robust, vocal defense of the evangelical agenda than Scott.
Evangelical Christians and former winners of the Republican caucuses in Iowa Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz felt no need to expand at length about their faith. If Scott had tightened it up, he might have done better. In the end, the “joyful warrior” was also a tedious, preachy one.
All of these problems can be fixed. Perhaps Scott recognizes that, saying “When I go back to Iowa, it will not be as a presidential candidate. I am suspending my campaign. I think the voters, who are the most remarkable people on the planet, have been really clear that—they're telling me, 'Not now, Tim.”
Should Biden prevail in 2024, I think Iowa Republicans who shared their support of Scott with me would welcome him back on the caucus trail again in four years. There's still a lane in the GOP for someone who is optimistic and inspiring as a counter to Trump's MAGA darkness. Scott had a shot if he had truly embraced it, but he never did.
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