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With Mike Pence, the conventional wisdom might be correct

Former vice president looks for an electoral lane that Trump, others are already in

Former Vice President Mike Pence acknowledges the crowd after a speech at The Heritage Foundation in October. Pence is running for president at a time former President Donald Trump is dominating media coverage and enjoys a high degree of loyalty among Republicans.
Former Vice President Mike Pence acknowledges the crowd after a speech at The Heritage Foundation in October. Pence is running for president at a time former President Donald Trump is dominating media coverage and enjoys a high degree of loyalty among Republicans. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The prevailing view these days in political circles is that Mike Pence cannot win the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. If you are looking for a different view here, I’m afraid you are going to be terribly disappointed.

After four years as Donald Trump’s vice president, Pence is well known by GOP and conservative voters. His problem is that they don’t like him all that much.

The website FiveThirtyEight has Pence’s personal favorable rating at 35 percent, while his unfavorable rating is 47 percent.

Pence’s approval rating is a bit higher among Republicans, according to a May 2023 Quinnipiac University survey. It puts Pence’s favorable rating at 48 percent and his unfavorable rating at 35 percent.

That’s not particularly impressive for a former V.P. who is running well behind the Republican he served under for four years.

Pence, like many other hopefuls in the 2024 contest, has tried to be a little of this and a little of that. 

He is critical of Trump when his former running mate does something particularly egregious, but he also defends the former president when Trump is under attack from law enforcement (the FBI or the Department of Justice), Democrats, the national media, and anyone who is offended by Trump’s language or behavior.

Unfortunately for Pence’s prospects, he is quickly finding out that it is difficult to be both a critic of Trump and a defender of him at the same time. 

Much has been made of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s problems communicating with real people. Pence, I always thought, has a similar problem. 

An evangelical and a conservative, Pence is almost always deadly serious. I remember interviewing him when he first ran for Congress. 

With his piercing eyes, intense focus, and consistently conservative views, I didn’t find him entertaining or engaging. To this day, Pence often sounds to me as if he is running to be the country’s pastor in chief, not its commander in chief.

That may not be a problem for evangelical voters looking for a moral leader (whatever that might mean to them), but it could well limit Pence’s overall appeal in a Republican race where he starts far behind the leaders, Trump and DeSantis.

Pence seems to think that there is an evangelical “lane” that he can exploit as he seeks his party’s nomination. Count me as skeptical.

Evangelicals did not have a problem voting for a man who bragged that he could grab a woman’s private parts or who had an affair with an adult film actress. (Remember, Trump carried 80 percent of white born-again or evangelical Christians in his 2016 run for the White House, according to the national exit poll.)

Given that, it is difficult to believe that most evangelicals base their voting decisions on questions of personal morality.

Of course, Pence will continue to have trouble appealing to Trump loyalists. Many of them believe that he refused to follow Trump’s wishes in December and January after the 2020 election, costing Trump another four years in the White House.

So, Pence loses both the hard-core Trump crowd and those who are critical of the former president, which limits his potential appeal to a narrow band of Republican voters.

You may be thinking that Pence has political assets that I have ignored, including plenty of campaign experience and a conservative record that GOP primary voters will love. 

But Trump has demonstrated that significant political experience doesn’t matter to many on the right. And while Pence is an unapologetic conservative, particularly on hot-button cultural issues, most of the Republicans running for their party’s nomination are also conservative.

Maybe even more important, Trump’s appeal these days is based less on ideology and more on his grievances, his warnings that the “Deep State” is out to change the country, and his message of anger.

The problem for Pence is that the more media coverage Trump gets — because of current and possibly future indictments — the more difficult it will be for Pence to re-write the current Republican presidential campaign script.

Since Trump leads DeSantis by about 30 points and Pence and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley by almost 50 points, the burden on Pence is to demonstrate that he can change the campaign dynamic. That will be almost impossible to do if all the focus is on Trump. 

And Trump is very, very good at keeping the focus on himself.

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