early and often

Mike Pence’s 2024 Strategy Totally Depends on Iowa Evangelicals

Mike Pence pressing the flesh in Iowa. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

It’s easy to dismiss former vice-president Mike Pence’s presidential ambitions as he moves closer to a declaration of candidacy for 2024. He is nationally famous for two contradictory things: his toadying conduct toward Donald Trump through nearly the entire administration and his courageous refusal to help steal the 2020 election on January 6 (after quite a bit of equivocation). With Trump running again and Florida governor Ron DeSantis looking likely to consolidate support among Republicans who want to move on from the 45th president for various reasons, it’s easy to see Pence fading from sight — like his friend and fellow Hoosier veep Dan Quayle, whose 2000 presidential bid has been justly forgotten.

In early polls, Pence has been battling newly announced candidate Nikki Haley for a distant third place in the 2024 GOP primary. And he has the unenviable combination of high name recognition and relatively low popularity among Republican voters, limiting his growth potential. The one thing Pence does possess that Haley and other potential rivals appear to lack is a strategy for a breakthrough. It begins in Iowa, and it harkens back to one of the more notable upset victories in recent GOP-presidential-contest history: Mike Huckabee’s win in the 2008 Iowa Caucuses.

That year, Mitt Romney (then advertising himself as the “true conservative” candidate) was widely expected to win Iowa as a springboard to challenging early front-runners Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Instead, he was trounced by the underfunded Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who skillfully campaigned among Iowa’s large conservative Evangelical population as one of their own (in muted contrast to Romney, the former LDS bishop). Huckabee subsequently ran out of gas (and money), but his Iowa performance touched off the demolition derby that eventually produced the McCain-Palin ticket. It’s no accident that the man who ran that successful caucus campaign has popped up in Pence’s orbit this year, as Politico reported in July:

Chip Saltsman, a senior adviser to Pence’s nonprofit group, Advancing American Freedom, is guiding Pence’s path in Iowa and other early states. Saltsman was the campaign manager for Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign, which included victory in the Iowa caucuses.

Pence isn’t the first Republican to follow the Huckabee blueprint. Rick Santorum tried a similar path in 2012, narrowly upsetting Romney in Iowa via a highly targeted appeal to conservative Evangelicals along the Pizza Ranch circuit of grassroots appearances. So did Ted Cruz in 2016. One of Cruz’s victims, ironically, was Huckabee, whose follow-up presidential candidacy was crushed between the big wheels of the Cruz and Trump campaigns — a fate that could await Pence if he stumbles even a little.

The key to the Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz victories is the fact (as of the last competitive caucuses in 2016) that close to two-thirds of Iowa Republican caucus-goers are self-identified born-again or Evangelical Christians — a much higher percentage than in New Hampshire (where in 2016, they were only 25 percent of Republican primary voters). Cruz, for example, beat Trump in Iowa by clobbering him among Evangelicals by a 34-22 margin.

Pence, of course, has been a Christian-right stalwart for most of his career and was a key validator for Trump in that segment of the GOP base. There’s even some anecdotal evidence that conservative Evangelical supporters of the joint Trump-Pence project have not joined the general MAGA anger at the faithful veep, as Christianity Today noted not long after January 6:

For evangelicals who backed Trump, “I think that actually many within this community were more stung by Trump’s open criticism of Pence than by what Pence chose to do in his refraining from exercising a questionable power,” said Scott Waller, politics professor at Biola University.

The former veep’s proto-campaign activities lately have shown quite the preoccupation with religiously oriented audiences and pre- or anti-Trump conservatives. While Trump and others were preparing to whoop it up at this year’s CPAC gathering outside of Washington, DC, here’s what Pence was doing, according to the Associated Press:

In explaining why Pence declined to attend this year, his aides cited a full schedule of events, including a Club for Growth donor summit; a trip to South Carolina, where he will speak at the evangelical Bob Jones University; a speech at the conservative Christian Hillsdale College in Michigan; and a Students for Life of America event in Florida.

Pence will have the perfect testing ground for an Evangelicals-first strategy in Iowa, where slow and steady campaigning is not only effective but essential, thanks to the long buildup to Caucus Night and the dominance of activists among those who show up. But he will, obviously, have to deal with Trump and DeSantis — assuming the Florida governor runs. And while Pence has uniquely strong ties to Iowa’s Christian right, the entire 2024 field will almost certainly share his focus on culture-war issues — notably, attacks on “woke” public schools in the name of “parental rights” and demands for public subsidies for private (and often religious) schools, which are both major themes for Iowa Republicans this year. Pence has managed already to get to the right of his rivals on abortion, echoing the demands of anti-abortion organizations for a federal ban on all abortions as a 2024 litmus test (DeSantis has banned abortions after 15 weeks in Florida, while Trump has annoyed his anti-abortion allies by insisting on exceptions for rape and incest).

It would be smart to watch what some of Iowa’s key Christian-right leaders say and do about Pence’s candidacy. In particular, the man often regarded as Iowa “kingmaker” (or at least weather vane), Bob Vander Plaats of the Family Leader, has backed every recent caucus winner. If Pence is going to go anywhere, he needs a lot of Evangelical street cred.

Pence’s path to a viable candidacy runs through Iowa, but it is very narrow and full of potholes, and it’s not clear where he’ll go from there if he does better than expected. New Hampshire has always been rocky ground for candidates of the Christian right (George W. Bush lost there in 2000, Huckabee finished a poor third in 2008, Santorum was a distant fifth in 2012, and Cruz lost to Trump in 2016 by a three-to-one margin). And while the next state on the calendar, South Carolina, is full of Pence-friendly Evangelicals, it’s the base of one or, perhaps, two rivals (Haley and Tim Scott), and Trump has already locked up significant support among Republican leaders there.

At this point, Pence has little choice but to trudge ahead — placing one foot in front of the other and hoping his competitors either falter or damage each other irrevocably. It’s a turtle-versus-hare strategy at best. But probably one that a career plodder like Pence can execute well.

More on politics

See All
Pence’s 2024 Strategy Totally Depends on Iowa Evangelicals