Sioux City, Iowa
In a crowded Pizza Ranch on Wednesday night, former Vice President Mike Pence found himself confronted about his role on January 6, 2021, by an Iowan who blamed him for President Joe Biden being elected president.
“If it wasn’t for your vote, we would not have Joe Biden in the White House. … Do you ever second guess yourself?” Luann Bertrand asked.
Pence, who was on the last stop of his day on a nearly weeklong Iowa swing, listened patiently to Bertrand’s question. “Let me be very respectful of the question,” the former vice president began, as he turned to explaining his role under the Constitution in certifying the 2020 US election results.
The episode encapsulated Pence’s challenge as he runs for the 2024 GOP nomination against former President Donald Trump, who’d wanted him to overturn Biden’s victory and has convinced many of his followers, falsely, that Pence had the power to do so. But the exchange at this intimate campaign stop also revealed what the former vice president hopes will be his winning strategy in the first-in-the-nation caucus state – namely allowing Iowans to question him and see him up close and personal.
For nearly five minutes, he directly answered Bertrand’s question, using the word “respect” and “deep affection” as he weaved in constitutional law and an admonishment of Trump, who’s the front-runner for the nomination.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. But that’s actually what the Constitution says. No vice president in American history ever asserted the authority that you have been convinced that I had. But I want to tell you, with all due respect, I said before, I said when I announced, President Trump was wrong about my authority that day and he’s still wrong,” he said.
When Pence finished his answer, the room of several dozen broke into applause.
For the Pence campaign, visiting all of Iowa’s 99 counties isn’t just a campaign promise – it is central to carving a path for taking on the historic challenge of running against a president he once served.
It may also be the best, and only, chance for a Pence campaign to take off.
“If you want to win the Iowa caucus, it’s a 50-person Pizza Ranch meeting,” Chip Saltsman, national campaign chairman for the Pence campaign and veteran Republican consultant, told CNN.
“Everybody that came here tonight, I guarantee the one thing they have in common – they’re all going to caucus. You’re looking for people that are willing to come out on a cold night, spend an hour and a half listening to everybody else talk, and then vote for your person.”
“The way you build those relationships are in meetings of 50, not rallies of 5,000,” he said, referring to Trump, who has drawn large crowds in his 2024 bid for the White House.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Saltsman was the campaign manager for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, when he concocted what he calls the “Pizza Ranch strategy” – hitting the chain’s 71 locations throughout Iowa, which have private rooms and dining areas conducive to a small town’s biggest events.
“We were at 1% [in the polls] when we announced,” said Saltsman, reflecting on the Huckabee campaign. “We worked really hard for about three months and then we went from 1% to asterisk. So we had to start back over. That’s when the Pizza Ranch strategy started.”
With the Huckabee campaign lacking money and name recognition, Saltsman realized that “for the price of a pizza, you got the meeting room” of the town’s Pizza Ranch – and that Huckabee had an automatic crowd if he showed up around lunch or dinner. “It was more out of necessity than some deep strategy,” he said.
The Huckabee team upscaled this plan to all 99 counties, focusing on finding the Iowa Republicans they needed to convince to caucus for their candidate. Huckabee came from behind to win the 2008 Iowa caucuses, although he ultimately fell well short of the nomination.
Pence is deploying a similar strategy, focusing on intimate settings where he will spend two hours face-to-face with Iowans, even if the crowd is fewer than 100 people. The Pence team is betting on the multiplying effect of these one-on-one encounters – that the voter will feel a kinship with Pence and bring others to caucus for him.
At an ice cream shop in Le Mars, Mavis Luther had just listened to Pence speak and answer questions for 90 minutes. The event was small enough that Luther could take a picture with Pence and chat with him. “It’s wonderful!” she exclaimed after she met him. “It’s the only way to have a chance to really know how they feel and answer questions at your level – of the community, country and our state.”
Pence, a former Indiana governor and congressman, shares the Midwest sensibilities of Iowa, as well as the campaigning style the caucus state is accustomed to. At the July Fourth parade in Urbandale, Pence often broke into a run to greet people along the parade route.
“I came to the conclusion over the last few years that I’m well known, but we’re not known well,” said Pence. “We’re going to be able to take our story, take our case, and take our whole record, and the story of our family, to the people of Iowa to great success.”
Matt Thacker, who was watching the parade in his lawn chair, had this to say about Pence’s handshake-to-handshake campaigning – “it matters.”
“The personal touch is very important,” Thacker said. “I think it makes a lot of difference. And recognizing the country isn’t the coasts. It’s the heartland.”
Bertrand, the woman in the Sioux City Pizza Ranch, walked away from the event open to Pence, but unconvinced by the facts he laid out about January 6.
“I believe he’s a good man,” Bertrand told CNN. “I love the fact that he is strengthened by his faith. But I really do feel like he altered history.”
Bertrand said she would consider supporting Pence in the caucuses. “But,” she said, “he has that one hiccup.”