Mike Pence is making little secret of his presidential ambitions. He’s written his book; he’s assembling his team; he’s mastered the art of the coy nondenial when somebody asks (in between trips to Iowa) if he’s running. In early Republican-primary polls, he hovers between 6 and 7 percent—not top-tier numbers, but respectable enough. He seems to think he has at least an outside shot at winning the Republican nomination.
And yet, ask a Republican voter about the former vice president, and you’re likely to hear some of the most withering commentary you’ve ever encountered about a politician.
In recent weeks, I was invited to sit in on a series of focus groups conducted over Zoom. Organized by the political consultant Sarah Longwell, the groups consisted of Republican voters who’d supported Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020. The participants were all over the country—suburban Atlanta, rural Illinois, San Diego—and they varied in their current opinions of Trump. In some cases, Longwell filtered for voters who should be in Pence’s target demographic. One group consisted entirely of two-time Trump voters who didn’t want him to run again; another was made up of conservative evangelicals, who might presumably appreciate Pence’s roots in the religious right.
I’ve been covering Pence’s strange Trump-era arc since 2017, when I first profiled him for The Atlantic. By some accounts, he’s wanted to be president since his college-fraternity days. I’ve always been skeptical of his chances, but now that he finally seems ready to run, I wanted to understand the appeal of his prospective candidacy. My goal was to see if I could find at least one Pence supporter.
Instead, these were some of the quotes I jotted down.
“I don’t care for him … He’s just middle-of-the-road to me. If there was someone halfway better, I wouldn’t vote for him.”
“He has alienated every Republican and Democrat … It’s over. It’s retirement time.”
“He’s only gonna get the vote from his family, and I’m not even sure if they like him.”
“He just needs to go away.”
It went on and on like that across four different focus groups. Of the 34 Republicans who participated, I heard only four people say they’d consider Pence for president—and two of them immediately started talking themselves out of it after indicating interest.
Some of the reasons for Pence’s lack of support were intuitive. Hard-core Trump fans said they’d been alienated by Pence’s refusal to block the certification of the 2020 electoral votes, as the president was demanding. This break with Trump famously prompted chants of “Hang Mike Pence!” to echo through the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
Although the sentiment expressed in the focus groups wasn’t quite so violent, the anger was still present. During one session, three people—all of whom had reported “very favorable” views of Trump—took turns trashing Pence for what they saw as his weakness.
“I’m so mad at Pence that I would never vote for him,” said one man named Matt. “He would be a horrible president … I just don’t think he has the leadership qualities to be president.” (I agreed to identify the participants only by their first name.)
“That’s exactly it,” a woman named Christine said, nodding eagerly. “He didn’t have the leadership qualities to do what everyone wanted him to do on January 6. He just doesn’t have that spine.”
A third participant, Nicholas, chimed in: “He just chose to go along with all the other RINOs and Democrats, not to upset the applecart.”
Meanwhile, less MAGA-inclined Republicans thought Pence was too Trumpy.
“The only thing I liked about him was that he actually did stand up to Donald Trump,” a woman named Barbara said. “He’s too a part of Trump. I don’t think Trump has a chance, and I don’t think anybody in that inner circle has a chance either.”
“I think he put a stain on himself for any normal Republican when he joined the Trump administration,” said another participant, Justin. “And then he put a stain on himself with any Trump Republican on January 6. So I don’t think he has a constituency anywhere. I don’t know if anyone would vote for him.”
Longwell told me this is how Pence is talked about in every focus group she holds. What to make of that 6 to 7 percent he gets in the primary polls? “I imagine there’s a cohort of GOP voters who are not particularly engaged who don’t want Trump again, and Pence is the only other name they really know,” she speculated. That, or “they’re all from Indiana,” the state where Pence served as governor. A second Republican pollster, who requested anonymity to offer his candid view, told me, “Seven percent is a weak showing for the immediate former VP.”
Devin O’Malley, an adviser to Pence, responded to a request for comment in an email: “Mike Pence has spent the last two years traveling to more than 30 states, campaigning for dozens of candidates, and listening to potential voters. Those interactions have been incredibly positive and encouraging, and we place more value in those experiences than of a focus group conducted by disgruntled former Republicans like Sarah Longwell and paid for by some shadow organization that The Atlantic won’t disclose.” (Longwell told me the costs for the focus groups are split between The Bulwark and the Republican Accountability Project, two anti-Trump organizations with which she is affiliated.)
What I found most fascinating about the voters’ digs at Pence was that they were almost always preceded by passing praise of his personal character: He was a “top-of-the-line guy,” a “nice man,” a “super kind, honest, decent” person. Not only did these perceived qualities fail to make him an appealing candidate, but they were also often held against him—treated as evidence that he lacked a certain presidential mettle.
“I don’t like how Trump was just in your face with everything, but Pence is almost too far in the other direction,” one participant named Judith said.
Perhaps these voters were identifying a simple lack of charisma. But their casual dismissal of Pence’s wholesome, God-fearing, family-man persona is emblematic of a sea change in conservative politics—and a massive miscalculation by Pence himself.
When Pence was added to the ticket in 2016, his chief function was to vouch for Trump with mainstream Republicans, especially conservative Christian voters. Pence’s reputation as a devout evangelical gave him a certain moral credibility when he defended Trump amid scandal and outrage. He performed this task exceptionally well. Those adoring eyes, those fawning tributes, that slightly weird fixation on the breadth of his boss’s shoulders—nobody was better at playing the loyalist. And for a certain kind of voter, Pence’s loyalty provided assurance that Trump was worthy of continued support.
Pence had his own motives, as I reported in my profile. All of this vouching for Trump was supposed to buy Pence goodwill with the base and set him up for a future presidential run. For many in Pence’s camp, the project took on a religious dimension. “If you’re Mike Pence, and you believe what he believes, you know God had a plan,” Ralph Reed, an evangelical power broker, told me back then.
But in creating a permission structure for voters to excuse Trump’s defective character and flouting of religious values, Pence was unwittingly making himself irrelevant. In effect, he spent four years convincing conservative Christian voters that the very thing he had to offer them didn’t matter.
In 2011, a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 30 percent of white evangelicals believed “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” By 2020, that number had risen to 68 percent.
Pence won the argument. Now he’s reaping the whirlwind.
In one of the focus groups, a devout Christian named Angie was asked how much she factored in moral rectitude when assessing a presidential candidate. “I try to use my faith to choose someone by character, but it hasn’t always been possible,” she said. Sometimes she had to vote for a candidate who shared her politics but didn’t live her values.
“Who comes to mind?” the moderator asked.
“I think Trump falls into that category,” Angie conceded. “But quite honestly, the vast majority of others do as well.” She paused. “I would say Pence actually doesn’t fall into that category. I would say his character probably aligns with biblical values fairly well.”
But Angie remained uninterested in seeing Pence in the Oval Office. If he had a record to run on, she wasn’t aware of it.
“Anything he did got overshadowed by all the drama of these last four years,” she said, hastening to add, “Seems like a perfectly nice man.”