Will Pence primary Trump — and win?
Not too long ago, The New York Times floated the idea of a Donald Trump-Ron DeSantis presidential primary. Aside from the lame attempt to sow division among Republicans, it was an absurd suggestion. DeSantis does not have the profile or national experience to challenge Trump. Plus, he must burn over a year running for reelection.
If Trump formally pulls the trigger on running (he is informally running now), there is only one Republican who could beat him: Mike Pence.
It seems impossible. Trump has trashed Pence mercilessly for failing to knuckle under and ignore the Constitution. The most fervent Trump fans have turned on the former VP. Pence himself went into hibernation, refusing to push back forcefully, even in the face of an avalanche of Trump insults. Pence learned the hard way that loyalty is a one-way street with Trump and that The Donald is prepared to stab even the most loyal in the back at a moment’s notice.
But Pence has found his voice. He is reentering the public sphere branding himself as a principled conservative. While Pence has not criticized or “broken” with Trump, he has not cowered pathetically, begging for a return to the fold (like Nikki Haley).
I have written that Pence has no chance at the GOP nomination in 2024, and I think that still applies to a crowded field without Trump. The combination of multiple acceptable options and the adamant opposition of Trump would likely be fatal to a Pence campaign.
But a one-on-one Pence-Trump fight is a different matter entirely.
Granted, Trump’s approval numbers with Republicans are still high. In the most recent YouGov benchmark scores, Trump gets 83 percent favorable, barely budging from his January numbers. But that number masks significant weakness as a 2024 nominee. GOP voters are, more and more, looking for other options. Plus, every week brings bad news or another Trump misstep.
The worst of the new polling asked who would be stronger against President Biden and showed Trump at 36 percent and “fresh face” (i.e., not Trump) at 52 percent.
But even if you don’t trust a poll by sworn enemy John Bolton, there is plenty of other unpleasant polling for Trump. When asked which candidates Republicans “would consider” supporting for president, Trump led the field but with only 56 percent. Pence was next at 28 percent. For Trump, that’s a 27-point drop from his approval rating.
The Capitol riot and the Trump Organization indictment are problematic as well. Rank-and-file Republicans are not pleased with the riot and are nervous about Trump’s unending legal entanglements. In the July 6 YouGov benchmark, GOP voters strongly disapprove of the riot (75 percent disapprove, 10 percent approve), even if they do not blame Trump (81 percent do not). But Trump’s rhetoric supporting and excusing the rioters is sure to boomerang on him. One wonders if Trump reads the polls.
And while Republicans don’t blame Trump for the indictments, that support is rather soft. The indictments are viewed unfavorably, 62 percent to 18 percent, but 20 percent are undecided, 34 percent believe there will be future charges and 26 percent think Trump will be personally charged (21 percent undecided). Witch hunt or not, this is not impeachment where conviction is not possible due to the partisan split in the Senate. This is a possible federal trial, and GOP voters are appropriately nervous about Trump’s legal troubles.
Other anecdotal evidence points to a slow degradation in Trump’s strength within the GOP.
Ticket sales to the Bill O’Reilly-Trump extravaganza tour have been so-so at best. Trump continues to play the whiny victim instead of countering Biden on substantive policy. America’s biggest winner of all time, Tom Brady, ridiculed Trump during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ White House visit. No matter how you cut it, when mainstream people start laughing at you, it’s not good.
Trump’s approval rating looks like a combination of Trump’s ubiquity in the public eye and as a proxy for Republican opposition to an amalgam of the Biden administration, the mainstream media and the “woke” police.
But how does this work for Pence and not for other potential candidates such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R)?
If Trump follows through with running, there is no chance DeSantis or any of the gaggle of possible contenders jump in. They simply don’t have the national experience or name recognition. But Pence does.
In spite of Trump’s loathing, Pence is still popular among Republicans and conservatives. Morning Consult has Pence at 69 percent favorable to 23 percent unfavorable — lower than Trump’s 85 percent to 14 percent — but, among all voters, Pence fares better at 41 percent to 47 percent, as opposed to Trump’s 44 percent to 54 percent. Majorities of Democrats and independents view Trump unfavorably, while Pence does 15 points better than Trump among Democrats and has only a plurality of independents against him.
Pence has the ideological bona fides among conservatives and backed Trump’s trade, China and tax policies. Unlike Trump, Pence has a consistent history as a conservative. He has real name recognition, on par with Trump, and now has experience on the national stage. The GOP may be more populated with closet Pence supporters than is commonly understood. In his debate with Kamala Harris, Pence scored favorable marks, better than Trump. And while Harris polled better, the known anti-GOP bias in 2020 polling makes that conclusion suspect.
But the very thing Politico concluded would hurt Pence may be his ace in the hole — Pence’s rather studious blandness.
Given GOP voters’ angst over Trump’s volatile nature, legal problems and unwillingness to moderate his behavior even when it is in his interest, a bland alternative may be just what the doctor ordered. Ironically, 2024 may be the Republicans’ turn to look for a quiet, boring, acceptable candidate in order to win.
Just as the Democrats in 2020 opted for the anodyne Biden based on winnability and a fear that a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren candidacy would mean four more years of Trump, Republicans may have the same fear that a replay of Trump vs. Biden would guarantee another four years of Democratic control.
Trump’s ballot test is running 27 points behind his favorable ratings just six months into the Biden administration.
Another three years of Trump’s unbound ego seems destined to widen that gap.
And if Trump insists on running in spite of sinking polling numbers, the clamor for an alternative may be just too great. In that case, the only real possibility is Mike Pence.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.