If there’s a glimmer of hope for Ron DeSantis and the rest of the Republican field hoping to defeat Donald Trump, it was in a focus group of evangelical voters in Iowa on Thursday night.
Trump, much of the group argued, did positive things during his presidency — and they agreed with him on many points. But, save for a few participants, they weren’t thrilled with him taking office again: Some said it was time to make way for a new face, while others cited his drama, his baggage, and his need to please people as reasons they were considering other options. One voter said he should apologize for Operation Warp Speed.
“The biggest difference between DeSantis and Trump for me is DeSantis drives the boat,” one participant explained. “Trump looks to see where the wind is blowing, and drives in that direction. Whether it’s the right direction or not.”
The event, which featured eighteen voters, was hosted by pollster and communication strategist Frank Luntz. It came on the eve of Friday’s social conservative cattle call for 2024 candidates put on by The Family Leader in Des Moines, which Trump is not attending.
Notably, fifteen of the focus group participants said they agreed with Trump that the 2020 election had been stolen. But that didn’t stop them from raising concerns about 2024: One woman wanted to know how he would ensure the same thing didn’t happen again. Several doubted his ability to win over independents who supported Joe Biden last time.
“Do you know of any people that now support Trump that didn’t support him then?” one man asked. “He’s only losing voters.”
One 2020 Trump voter said she was unsure she would support him again in a general election, even as she expressed strongly conservative views on abortion.
Trump’s rivals have been running ads, holding town halls, and sending out mailers to build up their respective profiles among Iowa voters in the early months of the campaign. They seem to be getting results, with participants showing interest in their biographies and eager to hear more.
Tim Scott was cited multiple times as the politician that participants viewed as most “truthful” (alongside Trump), though there was a noticeable lack of knowledge surrounding what he’s done as a senator.
“Tim Scott has an amazing story and that’s really compelling for me,” one person said. “That’s not gonna make my decision for me … but it causes me to look into him a lot more than I would have without knowing his story.”
Some participants also liked DeSantis, citing his focus on policy issues and military service, though one thought he came off as “slick” and another called him a “career politician.” Vivek Ramaswamy received some of the most widespread praise within the group, with one voter describing him as a young, “anti-woke” candidate with a willingness to be “bold.”
“He’s not a career politician,” another person said. “He’s got some really, I think, intelligent ideas. He’s hungry. His parents were immigrants.”
It’s one focus group half a year before the Iowa caucus so don’t take it as gospel, but the findings suggest Trump’s challengers aren’t delusional in thinking there’s a potential path forward. Most of the candidates view Iowa as crucial to having a real shot at winning the nomination — and evangelical voters are crucial to winning Iowa. A few focus group participants were still big fans of Mike Huckabee, who won in 2008 with a faith-focused message.
Even before officially announcing his campaign, DeSantis met with prominent evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats (the host of Friday’s event) and the two continue to keep in touch as the Florida governor targets evangelical voters in an attempt to revive his campaign. Meanwhile, Scott pregamed Friday’s big social conservative event with a new ad arguing that the country should turn its “attention back towards the gospel” and that “the key ingredients to the next American century start in a place of worship.” Mike Pence is honing in on the same pool of voters, betting that his personal faith and hardline position on abortion will win him evangelical support.
With all that in mind, Friday’s event is the biggest chance Republican presidential hopefuls have had thus far to make their case, with each set to be interviewed by Tucker Carlson.
The stakes are even higher because of Trump’s absence: While polling within the state is scarce, recent surveys show the former president with a comfortable lead. But he’s frustrated some Republicans in recent weeks with attacks against Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds — one state senator switched his support to DeSantis in response — and his dismissal of this event. And, as far back as December of last year, some top evangelical leaders were already trying to steer their followers away from Trump.
For religious conservatives, the stakes are high. Participants in Thursday’s focus group expressed deep concern about the state of the world, with many bringing up the increased prominence of gay and especially transgender life in American culture, and expressing particular concern about education.
The conversation was often personal: Some said they had LGBTQ people in their life who they love and maintain relationships with, even as they find it difficult to accept their identity and choices.
“Most of us would not approve of a pursuit of a lifestyle that we see as damaging and not in God’s plan for them,” one participant said. “But I’ve been in the church my entire life. I’ve never met one person that I can honestly say, hates gay people.”
Room for Disagreement
Republican voters have shown some ambivalence about Trump in the past, especially after the midterms, but he has a dominant lead in polls. He also performed well at the Faith and Freedom Conference last month, another major gathering of social conservative activists, where his reluctance to embrace a national ban on abortion did little to diminish enthusiasm for his campaign.