Frank Luntz was backstage at the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines last month, poring over the results of a focus group he’d just conducted with religious voters, when he heard a shocking sound: Mike Pence, a born-again evangelical Christian, getting loudly booed by his fellow believers. “I poked my head through the curtain because I couldn’t believe it,” the renowned and devilishly effective Republican pollster and messaging guru told me recently. “And it had nothing to do with his positions on values or on religion or on social issues. It had to do with Ukraine.”
The moment was going viral as they spoke, possibly for the sheer irony of the situation: Pence, the guy Donald Trump recruited to placate evangelicals, was getting reamed by evangelicals. But Luntz, whose work in G.O.P. politics has spanned nearly three decades, had never seen anything like it. “No one better represented the values of that crowd than Mike Pence… He’s everything they are, and they’re booing him,” he exclaimed. Trump was not in attendance, he noted, but every mention of his name earned applause. Meanwhile Pence, a lifetime man of faith, was treated like a heretic. “Frankly,” Luntz said, “I still haven’t gotten over it.”
In the modern, MAGA-fied G.O.P., Luntz has also found himself on the outside for criticizing Trump and Trumpism, as well as for trying to prop up the conservative principles that once defined the party: limited government, lower taxes, strong family values, etcetera. So he recently decided to start conducting one of his famous focus groups with white Christian voters, to determine what had changed in the past eight years. This demographic will continue to hold an outsized influence on the outcome of the G.O.P. primary: According to a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, 68 percent of G.O.P. voters identify as white Christians, and 30 percent identify specifically as white evangelicals.