Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): It’s a close call, but perhaps the most ineffectual campaign in the 2024 Republican presidential primary has been Mike Pence’s. Despite all the advantages that come with being a former vice president, his campaign has stagnated (falling from a high of 12 percent in our national polling average to 6 percent today) thanks to the ambivalence many Republicans feel toward him after his break with former President Donald Trump.
But Pence seems to have found new life last week after Trump’s indictment in connection with his attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Pence was mentioned in the indictment as standing up to Trump’s efforts, and his campaign has used that to its advantage, selling merchandise referencing a time Trump allegedly said he was “too honest” and receiving more than 7,400 donations. And in response to the indictment, Pence offered arguably his most potent criticism of Trump yet: “Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States.”
So for this week’s FiveThirtyEight politics chat, let’s debate Pence’s ideal campaign strategy. Should he go full-bore anti-Trump as a way to revitalize his campaign? Or is that foolish given the firm hold that Trumpism still has on the GOP?
gelliottmorris (G. Elliott Morris, editorial director of data analytics): Well, Nathaniel, “revitalize” implies there was ever life in Pence’s campaign, which is … debatable. Given his polling numbers, I think it would take quite the about-face to enliven his bid — and that’s assuming voters would want what he’s selling in an already-crowded field.
maryr (Mary Radcliffe, senior research assistant): In polling from Echelon Insights in July, 47 percent of Republican voters said they primarily considered themselves supporters of Trump, and 42 percent said they primarily considered themselves supporters of the Republican Party. So it would take a serious shift to move the primary in an anti-Trump direction.
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): As a strategy to make the first primary debate stage and stay in the spotlight, sure, attacking Trump makes some sense. Pence’s campaign announced Monday that it had hit the 40,000-donor mark necessary to qualify for the debate, but it took a while for that to happen. By comparison, the more vocally anti-Trump former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said in mid-July that he had met that threshold.
As a strategy to win the GOP nomination, though, going whole-hog anti-Trump isn’t the right choice. In fact, there are already a number of anti-Trump candidates like Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former Texas Rep. Will Hurd who are running even though the anti-Trump wing of the party is small. With only a small slice of the electorate available to them, these candidates are essentially fighting to get into a tiny elevator in an old apartment building. Then again, Pence is already between a rock and a hard place because of his association with Trump’s 2020 defeat and the fact that two-thirds of Republicans still don’t think Trump legitimately lost the election.
gelliottmorris: That’s right, Mary and Geoff. At a fundamental level, I just don’t see how moving his campaign even more in the anti-Trump direction buys him much of anything — especially given that his favorability numbers have only continued to tank the more anti-Trump he has gotten.
maryr: That’s true. A YouGov/The Economist poll conducted entirely after Trump’s third indictment gave Pence his worst favorability rating among Republicans since at least January 2017. So it seems like his anti-Trump comments, while they might win him some resistance bucks for the debate stage, aren’t resonating with Republican voters.
geoffrey.skelley: But hey, maybe after this campaign, he can get a television gig. Although he might face some anti-Trump candidate competition there, too!
nrakich: Let me play devil’s advocate, though. Mary, I would interpret that Echelon Insights poll you mentioned a bit differently. Most metrics suggest that around three-quarters of Republican primary voters support Trump and Trumpism. That’s about the share that say they have a favorable view of Trump, and it’s also the combined support in national polls for Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has embraced culture-war issues in a similar way.
But the Echelon Insights poll suggests that there is actually a larger chunk of Republican voters who aren’t wedded to Trump. Forty-two percent isn’t that much lower than 47 percent!
And as a former vice president, someone with a relationship with Republican elites and donors, someone whose favorable ratings — while not great — are at least not as bad as Christie’s, doesn’t Pence have a better shot at consolidating the anti-Trump vote than any other candidate?
geoffrey.skelley: I think that’s right, Nathaniel. Christie has terrrrrrrible favorable ratings among Republicans, so Pence would almost certainly have a higher, if still low, ceiling for support.
But, to your point about the Echelon Insights poll, I also think identifying with the GOP is still largely about identifying with Trump, given how he’s reshaped the party.
gelliottmorris: I think I disagree, Nathaniel. I think the problem for Pence is the difference between Republican elites and the Republican base — the same divide that helped Trump rise to the top in 2015 and 2016. Yes, the Echelon poll implies that 40-something percent of Republicans put their party over Trump — but that is not the same as putting any other candidate above him. And while Pence may turn some heads at the next #NeverTrump cocktail party in Washington, D.C., Republicans know him as the guy who publicly defied Trump on Jan. 6 and has attacked Trump over his indictments. I reckon that stings a little more for that other 45-to-75 percent of the party that is Trump-first to Trump-only.
maryr: I also think there are other candidates who have the kinds of elite relationships that you mentioned, Nathaniel, who could consolidate the support of the anti-Trump wing of the party — even if they haven’t been as direct in their criticism of Trump as Pence has so far. For example, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley could probably make a credible anti-Trump case, and she’s much better liked by the Republican electorate. In an average of polls conducted since July 1, Pence’s net favorability among Republicans is only +1 point. Haley’s is +26 points.
geoffrey.skelley: I wasn’t counting someone like Haley as an anti-Trump candidate (yet, anyway), but sure, she’d be a better choice than Pence because she isn’t nearly as disliked as he is. But if Christie is your polling leader among the current field of anti-Trumpers, then Pence is a better bet than him to win, 100 times over.
All of this is academic to some extent, however. A YouGov/CBS News poll in June found that if they couldn’t have Trump, 74 percent of Republican primary voters still wanted someone “similar to Trump” to be the nominee. Only 26 percent said they wanted someone “different from Trump.” In other words, an anti-Trump candidate isn’t winning this nomination.
gelliottmorris: Yeah — and if you look at the latest Morning Consult survey of Republican primary voters (caveat: it’s just one poll), a striking pattern appears: Anti-Trump candidates have high unfavorables, and pro-Trump candidates have high favorables. Are we missing something here? Is it this simple?
geoffrey.skelley: It is probably that simple.
nrakich: “An anti-Trump candidate isn’t winning this nomination.” But, in all likelihood, neither is a pro-Trump candidate who isn’t Trump, right? I feel like that’s the elephant in the room here: Trump is on a glide path to the nomination. Something about the race needs to fundamentally shift in order for that to change.
And as we’ve written, the other candidates might be making a strategic error by not attacking Trump more — say, over his indictments.
geoffrey.skelley: That also sounds like a good way to get more Republicans to dislike you. Which I’m told is a poor way to excel in a GOP primary.
nrakich: Pence has to play the hand he’s dealt. He already has that anti-Trump stink on him, so he might as well embrace it and try to take down Trump. Maybe there’s a small chance that Trump’s legal problems force him to withdraw and Pence is left as the guy who said “I told you so.”
Because, right, otherwise his campaign seems doomed.
geoffrey.skelley: That’s the equivalent of trying to hit a miracle bank shot in billiards, but yes, that’s probably Pence’s best chance.
maryr: If the primary shifted enough that Trump was no longer the odds-on favorite, I agree that that could lead to all kinds of crazy outcomes. That said, I don’t think that anybody in the field right now could appeal to a newly formed anti-Trump GOP electorate — they’re either too Trumpy or too disliked.
geoffrey.skelley: Thing is, Trump isn’t dropping out anytime soon (if he ever does, of course), and Pence isn’t going to have the money to hang around until the spring and hope that all this comes to pass. Candidates like DeSantis, Haley, Sen. Tim Scott and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy — even North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, because he’s so wealthy — have a better shot at doing that.
But the only way Pence survives longer is by making the debate stage and staying relevant. So his shift in rhetoric to a more vocally anti-Trump posture makes sense in that context.
nrakich: Right, I think my argument does primarily boil down to the money. Pence’s fundraising in the second quarter of 2023 was abysmal: only $1.2 million in 26 days, which was the third-worst rate of fundraising among major Republican candidates. And I think there is a consistent supply of money on the anti-Trump side of the party that Pence could really use access to.
maryr: “Staying relevant,” Geoffrey? Is he relevant now?
nrakich: You’re proving my point, Mary! He could become more relevant if he becomes the race’s leading anti-Trump voice.
gelliottmorris: It sounds like we’re saying going full anti-Trump might help Pence’s campaign raise money, and it’s hard to become even more unpopular when you’re at 6 percent. So, maybe the calculation is: potential upside, little downside?
nrakich: Now you’re coming ’round, Elliott! 😉
geoffrey.skelley: He’s already on life support, so why not beep a bit longer?
gelliottmorris: I just think this is moot until Trump is gone. Historically, you can count on one hand the number of candidates with high name recognition who have gone from 5 percent in the polls to winning the nomination (I’m thinking here about Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and he likely only got in because of the chaos of that year’s calendar and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy). Arguably, Trump managed to do that in 2016 by presenting a new and uniquely Trumpy ideological vision for the party. What is Pence’s vision, though, and what sets him apart?
geoffrey.skelley: And it’s hard to know if Trump will ever be gone. He may already be the presumptive nominee by the time his first criminal trial starts in late March. Around half the delegates in the GOP primary will have been allocated by mid-March, and the candidate leading at that point in the primary usually goes on to win the nomination.
maryr: There also have been rumors that DeSantis donors have been looking for a new candidate to back since his campaign has been struggling. Do we think there’s a chance that Pence could catch their eye?
nrakich: Good question, Mary. No, I don’t think Pence would have access to those donors. If you’re supporting DeSantis, you are generally OK with the direction in which Trump has taken the party — you just want to move on from Trump specifically for some reason (e.g., maybe you think Trump can’t beat Biden). And I think Pence has already edged too far into anti-Trump-landia to appeal to those people.
geoffrey.skelley: Lot of heavy drinking these days in anti-Trump-landia.
gelliottmorris: The best thing Pence could do for his campaign is to take the other candidates to dinner, buy them a bottle of Macallan 30 and convince them to drop out. (For legal reasons, this is a joke.)
geoffrey.skelley: Hey, you’re allowed to talk and coordinate, like we saw Democrats do just before Super Tuesday in 2020 by lining up behind Biden. Better that than the lack of coordination among Republicans late in the 2016 primary, when Sen. Ted Cruz thought then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich would stay in against Trump and dropped out, only for Kasich to up and drop out the day after Cruz did.
maryr: Even if Trump were gone, Pence may not be the one to benefit. Likely Republican primary voters who say they plan to vote for Trump have the worst impression of Pence, according to The New York Times/Siena College. In that poll, Pence’s favorability is underwater with Trump primary voters by 18 points, but he’s above water with voters planning to vote for DeSantis or other candidates. So that may mean that he could consolidate some of the voters who right now aren’t in Trump’s camp, but that Trump dropping out doesn’t help him that much.
gelliottmorris: Great find, Mary. Those not-Trump (as opposed to anti-Trump) Republican voters are also likelier than Trump voters to say they would prefer “a candidate who focuses on restoring law and order in our streets and at the border” to one who “focuses on defeating radical ‘woke’ ideology in our schools, media and culture”; are likelier than Trump supporters to prefer “a candidate who says that the government should stay out of deciding what corporations can support” instead of one who “promises to fight corporations that promote ‘woke’ left ideology”; and likelier to support a candidate who “promises to protect individual freedom” instead of “[protecting] traditional values.”
To me, that sounds a lot like the campaign Pence wants to run — or at least it describes him better than it describes, say, DeSantis. So I think what I take away from the poll is that as long as Trump is the central issue of the campaign, Pence will flounder by virtue of being opposed to him. In that environment, maybe it makes financial or media sense to campaign hard against him, though it won’t win him more votes.
But if, perhaps by act of God, the party and discourse about the primary can move beyond Trump, he could have a real shot by running a more traditional campaign.
maryr: A big challenge for him, though: 54 percent of voters in that poll say they plan to vote for Trump. So even if the rest of the voters look more Pence-friendly, there may not be enough of them.