The American vice presidency, according to one of its former officeholders, is “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” But for a worthless office, the vice presidency has certainly produced a lot of presidents: Though John Nance Garner, the former VP credited with the colorful aphorism1 never reached the White House, a number of his fellow vice presidents have. Overall, the office has proven to be one of the most common stepping stones to the presidency — or at least to becoming a party’s presidential nominee.
But that success rate will face a major test in 2024: Former Vice President Mike Pence has just announced his candidacy for president, entering the race in arguably a weaker position than just about any other modern vice president. This is due in part to the challenges Pence faces, including the unusual prospect of running against the president he served under and his reduced political standing among Republicans since he refused to aid former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election.
Pence is the ninth elected vice president since World War II to seek the presidency either as a sitting or former VP.2 Of the eight who came before him, six went on to win their party’s presidential nomination at some point. Based on that track record, then, we’d expect Pence to be in a good position to compete for his party’s nomination.
|Vice President||Party||Served as VP||Year(s) ran||Won nomination|
|Alben W. Barkley||D||1949-1953||1952|
|Richard Nixon||R||1953-1961||1960, 1968||✓|
|Hubert Humphrey||D||1965-1969||1968, 1972||✓|
|George H.W. Bush||R||1981-1989||1988||✓|
But to put it bluntly, Pence faces an incredibly steep climb. As of June 5 at 6 p.m., he’s polling at just above 5 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s average of national Republican primary surveys. And limited early polling in Iowa and New Hampshire has Pence in the low single-digits, too.
That Pence significantly trails Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is clear, but if we consider how Pence’s standing compares to that of past sitting and former vice presidents running for president, the situation looks even more dire. In the modern era of presidential primaries — 1972 to present — Pence is polling just about the worst of any vice president at this point in the election cycle. Only Dan Quayle, whose campaign for the 2000 GOP nomination never really got going in a cycle that then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush dominated from the start, attracted as little support as Pence.
|1988||George H.W. Bush||34.6||
Besides Quayle, most other vice presidents have been more clearly competitive in the polls at this early point, if not clearly ahead. Vice Presidents Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and Biden all led their respective primary fields five months into the year before the primary; all would go on to become their party’s nominee.
Now, it’s still early in the election cycle, but early primary polls have historically been a relatively good barometer of a candidate’s chances of winning a presidential nomination. Candidates polling at Pence’s level, especially those who are well-known to voters like he is, have very rarely gone on to enjoy a balloon drop at a party convention. Of course, Pence also faces a challenge none of his modern vice presidential predecessors had to confront: He’s running against the president he served under. At present, Trump is attracting slightly more than half of all support among potential Republican primary voters.
The million-dollar question is, can Pence substantially change his position in the race? One major challenge is that he’s notably less well-liked among Republicans than his main primary opponents. In an average of national polls conducted since May 1, Pence has a favorable rating among Republicans of about 51 percent and an unfavorable rating of about 34 percent, putting his net favorability at +17. By comparison, Trump, DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy all polled +20 or better, even though all but Trump and DeSantis are much less well-known to the public than Pence.
The reason Pence finds himself more disliked and hovering in the mid-single digits in primary polls is fairly straightforward: Pence’s ratings among Republicans tumbled and have remained relatively low since he refused to assist Trump in subverting the results of the 2020 election. As vice president, Pence presided over the certification of the Electoral College results on Jan. 6, 2021. Trump tried to pressure Pence to discard electoral votes and overturn now-President Biden’s victory, but Pence refused to do so, claiming he had no constitutional right to intercede in the certification process. (Quayle, Pence’s fellow Hoosier, reportedly advised an uncertain Pence that the vice president had no authority to avoid certification.)
This is not to say that all Republican primary voters turned on Pence — he does have a net positive favorability rating — but there’s clear evidence that Jan. 6 damaged Pence’s standing among the party faithful. It hasn’t helped Pence that Trump has continued to blame him for his defeat, even as Pence has argued that Trump was “wrong” about Pence’s prerogative to help overturn the 2020 result. Unfortunately for him, Pence finds himself in the minority among Republicans when it comes to views about the election’s outcome: In March, 63 percent of Republicans told an SSRS/CNN survey that Biden had not won legitimately enough votes to become president, in line with what most polls have found since the 2020 contest.
Despite his difficulties, Pence may still hope to change some Republican minds. And we do know that it’s not impossible to improve one’s standing: Trump himself quickly went from being rather unpopular among Republicans to somewhat popular early in his 2016 campaign, once the GOP base got to know him more as a candidate and not just as a celebrity. But Pence is running in a GOP that is clearly Trump’s party, whether or not the former president does go on to win the Republican nomination. Not only is Trump polling in the mid-50s in national surveys, but the Trump-like DeSantis is in second with around 20 percent, meaning around 3 in 4 Republicans back a Trumpist vision for the party. Moreover, early data suggests that DeSantis has far more second-choice support among Trump backers than Pence.
It’s impossible to know, but considering his obstacles, Pence may be running not so much to win his party’s nomination but to influence the GOP to move toward a more traditionally conservative path. Political movements often take years to develop and gain traction, so it will be difficult in the near term to gauge just how much impact Pence’s campaign will have on his party’s direction. All in all, Pence’s choice to not interfere in certifying the results of a free and fair election has made it unlikely that he’ll win the 2024 Republican nomination. But at least he can probably sleep at night.