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Iowa evangelicals feel under attack — and many don’t see Trump as their savior

Former President Donald Trump leads in national public polling of evangelicals, but a focus group in Iowa highlighted a few cracks in his base.
Audience members pray at the start of the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, on  July 14, 2023.
Audience members pray at the start of the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, on Friday. Charlie Neibergall / AP

DES MOINES, Iowa — When a group of 18 evangelical Christian voters gathered here pondered whether they thought Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, 15 of them raised their hands. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be caucusing for the former president in January.

That was one of the headline findings of a focus group convened by GOP pollster Frank Luntz on the eve of the Family Leadership Summit, an evangelical gathering that drew a host of non-Trump Republican presidential candidates to Iowa Friday.

Luntz assembled the focus group of Des Moines-area voters on behalf of the Family Leader using basic criteria: They needed to consider themselves either “conservative” or “strongly conservative,” attend church at least once a week, and identify as either born-again Christian or evangelical. It’s a group with enormous influence over the outcome of next year’s Iowa caucuses — and it’s a group that is fond of Trump but not completely wedded to him.

“It feels like at some point he swallowed a fifth grader that’s always trying to get out. These insults toward people keep coming out of his mouth.” said Patti Parlee, 65, from Urbandale.

Recent Iowa caucuses prove that to win the state, candidates must first win over evangelicals. Sixty four percent of voters in the 2016 Iowa caucus identified as evangelical or born-again Christians. And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz outperformed Trump with evangelicals by 12 points in 2016, according to the NBC News exit poll, propelling Cruz to an early victory.

Likewise, in 2012 and 2008, evangelical voters preferred caucus winners Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. 

So far this year, evangelicals nationally favor Trump: The former president took 54% support from evangelicals in NBC News’ most recent national GOP primary poll, compared with 26% for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. No one else was in double digits.

When asked who they thought the most truthful politician was, the Iowa focus group respondents most often cited Trump, DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, of whom Bryan Moon, 61, said: “He could sell me anything and I’d buy it. I believe him.” 

And when tasked with defining what the truth even is, one respondent gave a simple answer: Jesus Christ. But these voters believe their faith and opinions are “under attack,” as Republican presidential candidates try to prove they are willing to defend them.

“I have been under attack in one way on Facebook,” said Tammy Negrete, 60, a retired dental hygienist from Ankeny. “I commented on our city posting something about the gay pride month and I literally was attacked by people who don’t even know me.” 

David Bush, 61, a real estate developer, said, “There’s a terrible misconception that Christians hate gay people.” Karen L. chimed in, saying, “They’ve created this narrative that if you don’t approve of my lifestyle, you hate me and that’s just not the truth. Anybody who’s had a child knows that they can love somebody without approving of what they’ve done.” 

Some admitted they’re ready to move on from Trump or never favored him, but more often for personal or policy differences as opposed to concerns about his electability.

“Trump looks [to] see, where’s the wind blowing, and then drives in that direction, whether it’s the right direction or not,” said law student Thomas Kinley, 26. “He’s too focused on what other people think and about being liked.”

In a state that gives priority to retail politics, some of the respondents pointed to Trump’s penchant for “trash talks” as a deterrent. He has recently garnered criticism for angry statements about Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has not endorsed him in the 2024 race but has appeared with DeSantis at several campaign events.

“So many people say policy over personality, but it’s, I personally did not vote for Trump because I couldn’t get past the personality,” said Heather Schnathorst. “I have three sons and I want them to have a president that they can admire and look up to and want to be like.”

Although many of the voters assembled by Luntz didn’t seem to be voting based on electability,  a number were quick to outline Trump’s vulnerabilities heading into a potential rematch with President Joe Biden, including his possible difficulty attracting new voters beyond his base and swaying independents. 

“Has he gained any new voters since November 2020 to now? I mean, do you know of any people that now support Trump that didn’t support him then? I mean, it’s, he’s only losing voters in my view,” said Kinley. 

While many remain undecided or open to alternative GOP candidates, Karen L. is sure of the type of candidate she won’t support. (Focus group participants were identified by first name and last initial; only some agreed to provide more information to NBC News.)

“I don’t want to hear them talking about working across the aisle because to me, that’s code for I’m weak and I’m going to do whatever the Democrats force me to do. I’m not going to stand up and stand my ground,” she said. 

Among a group of voters selected based on the strength of their convictions, some have lost faith in the former president and remain open to new GOP leadership. 

“President Trump, I voted for you twice. I moved to unanimous support in my local caucus in 2020,” said David K. “But you cannot win this next election, one way or the other.”