Mike Pence tours Iowa state fair in search of votes – but who is his candidacy aimed at?

Mike Pence and wife Karen strolled through the Iowa state fair, their little fingers locked together, as soap bubbles drifted by and chairlifts trundled overhead. The couple donned red aprons – his said “Vice President Mike Pence” – and flipped pork chops on a giant grill while smiling for photographers.

Then, with a bead of sweat rolling down his forehead and settling on his cheek on a hot August day, Pence told reporters that he was the “most qualified candidate” and “most consistent conservative in the field” for the Republican nomination for US president in 2024.

But the carefully choreographed scene hit a glitch. Andrew Wallace was wearing a “Make America great again” cap and “Buck Fiden” T-shirt and holding a “Trump” sign as well as Pence’s memoir So Help Me God. The 21-year-old from Wisconsin said loudly: “Mike Pence is a traitor and we all know it. He could have sent the votes back to the states but he chose not to do it because he’s a coward.”

The episode offered a stark reminder that Pence, once loyal to the point of sycophancy, now stands accused of treachery by supporters of former president Donald Trump over his refusal to overturn their defeat by Joe Biden in the 2020 election. Some called for the then vice-president to be hanged as they stormed the US Capitol on January 6 2021 (this week in Iowa a man approached Pence and remarked: “I’m glad they didn’t hang you.”)

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Now Pence has emerged as one of the central figures in a criminal indictment of Trump over his alleged effort to overturn his 2020 election defeat. Filed earlier this month by special counsel Jack Smith, the indictment documents Trump’s many attempts to pressure Pence to disrupt the certification process on January 6. At one point, Trump allegedly told Pence, “You’re too honest.”

Although constitutional experts agree that Pence had no authority to challenge the election results, his role in certifying Trump’s defeat has won him few fans with Republican voters, 70% of whom believe Biden’s win was illegitimate. That reality has complicated, if not erased, the hopes of a man seen by many as a throwback to a Republican party that has largely ceased to exist.

Former vice-president Mike Pence and wife Karen visit the children’s section of the Iowa state fair.

Former vice-president Mike Pence and wife Karen visit the children’s section of the Iowa state fair. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Pence used his platform at the Iowa state fair – a rite of passage for candidates to gorge on fried food and woo middle America – to defend his actions in protecting the constitution, affirm a hawkish approach foreign policy and endorse cutting welfare benefits in the name of fiscal responsibility. He spoke of his faith in God, civility and former president Ronald Reagan. These would once have been uncontroversial, even essential foundations of any Republican candidacy, especially in religiously conservative Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation caucuses in January.

But Trump took over the party of Reagan and transformed it from within. He attacked constitutional democracy with a barrage of lies, promoted “America-first” isolationism and ran up a huge national debt. There is nothing traditional about his approach to civility or God. All of which has left Pence out of step with the party base.

One example is over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where Pence has pledged continued US support but Trump and his allies in Congress want to halt funding. Wallace, the Trump supporter, said: “If Mike Pence was a true conservative, he would join the conservative movement and oppose the war in Ukraine.”

John Rusk, a Republican who opposes Trump, retorted: “How would you like it if your country was overtaken – your democratic country was attacked, bombed, raped, murdered, looted? Come on. That’s not the American way. The American way is to stop people like that, stop tyrants.”

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Wallace replied: “Talk to the majority of young Republicans. They did a poll of that kind down in West Palm Beach and 96% opposed it. Those are the young people, Gen Z, millennials. If the people that are going to be fighting in a war don’t want to fight the war then why are the people like you, the older generation, fighting for us to go to Ukraine?”

With that he left and Rusk shouted after him: “You want Russia to come here then, don’t you? You’d love it.”

Pence is also the only major candidate who supports a federal ban on abortion at six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant. Recent voters across America suggest this could be an electoral liability. But Pence said on Friday: “I reject the notion that … standing for the sanctity of life is a political loser. There are things more important than politics but I really believe that, when we stand for the sanctity of life on principle and with compassion, the American people will rally to our cause.”

Earlier, the former vice-president drew a crowd of about a hundred people to an event hosted by Iowa governor Kim Reynolds. Wearing checked shirt, blue jeans and brown boots, the white-haired Pence, once described by Trump as “central casting”, looked the part of a Republican candidate from another era. He played folksy by praising the food at the state fair, saying he would see its famed butter cow sculpture and recalling a meeting in Iowa with a cow called Chippy.

Sherry Power, 78, a retired nurse from Corona, California, who said: “I love him. He’s got integrity like we don’t see any more here and he’ll build on that if he gets in. He doesn’t have bad things to say about any of the other people that are running for president and I like that. He has experience and that is the big difference between he and a lot of the other people that are running.”

But Pence’s poor standing in opinion polls underscores the monumental challenge he faces. According to FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average, he stands at a distant fourth in the race, winning the support of roughly 5% of likely Republican primary voters across the country. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll showed Pence at just 3% in Iowa, which will hold its caucuses in January.

There were also some Trump supporters in the crowd as former vice-president Mike Pence visited the Iowa state fair on Friday

There were also some Trump supporters in the crowd as former vice-president Mike Pence visited the Iowa state fair on Friday. Photograph: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

In one bleak sign of his primary prospects, Pence raised a meagre $1.2m during the second quarter of the year. That haul put Pence behind two other candidates, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and North Dakota governor Doug Burgum, who announced their campaigns the same week that he did.

The Pence campaign is remaining upbeat and content with the notion that he represents traditional values. Marc Short, an adviser, said: “I would argue that he’s the only classical conservative in this race. But as he says, what the Trump-Pence era did was to build upon that, not to replace it. It took that as the foundation and there were some populist policies added on top of that. There’s a much broader number of classical Republicans still in our party and we’ll test that theory.”

But political analysts regard his chances as slim. Michael D’Antonio, co-author of The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence, said: “I don’t know what he’s doing in this race other than trying to keep himself in the public eye. His candidacy is really puzzling. I don’t get it. Maybe he’s trying to recover some of the dignity he lost as vice-president.”

D’Antonio suggested the former vice-president’s campaign may be intended for the history books rather than the primary voters of today. “The stand that he took on January 6 is the main thing that has distinguished him as a public official, and he could be trying to make sure that history doesn’t forget,” he said. “In a way, defying Trump’s base is similar to defying Trump himself on that day.”

But in Iowa, David Stelzer, who at the Des Moines Register newspaper’s political soapbox asked Pence if he had committed treason, thinks he should have spoken out much sooner after January 6. “The sad thing is he won’t get that chapter in a future Profiles in Courage book because he didn’t finish the job and it was because he’s so worried about alienating the Trump base.”

Stelzer, 63, a retired federal government employee who lives in Denver, added: “His chances in the Republican primary are zero. This is the tragedy. He will not win because the Trump base will not allow it. I mean, Jesus, they set up gallows for him.”

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