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Who’s The Best Pick Among Trump’s B-List VP Choices?

In this week’s politics chat, we weigh the pluses and minuses of Donald Trump’s potential vice-presidential picks. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Let’s start with the basics: Harry, who’s on Trump’s VP shortlist?

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Reportedly, it’s:

  1. Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana;
  2. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey;
  3. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House;
  4. Mike Flynn, retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Army;
  5. Unknown.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Isn’t “unknown” Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): FLYNNSANITY. I really wish he were a top choice so we could make that catch on, but I feel like his pro-choice oopsies this weekend really take him out of the running.

natesilver: Although, maybe we need a “wild card” category (Ivanka Trump! Ben Carson! Stanley McChrystal!)

clare.malone: Who’s saying McChrystal? That seems … truly wild.

micah: As opposed to Ivanka?

clare.malone: I mean, Ivanka is clearly an indulgence on the part of the media. It’s fun, but it ain’t gonna take. A former general who was once floated as a potential DEMOCRATIC presidential candidate is another thing.

harry: I haven’t heard Sessions as much recently. McChrystal says he’s not interested:

natesilver: The whole veepstakes is sort of an indulgence, really. And there are a lot of mutually reinforcing incentives to put BS rumors out there. For the candidate (Trump, in this case) it builds up suspense and creates drama. And you get to say “look at all these wonderful people who would love to be my running mate.” For the would-be VPs, it gets their name out there before a national audience, which is typically pretty hard to do under ordinary circumstances unless you (i) run for president, or (ii) royally screw up somehow.

micah: Is Trump’s list really that wonderful?

harry: (For those at home, Nate and Micah are currently quarreling off-chat.)

natesilver: From my vantage point, Micah, it contains one league-average name (Pence) and then a bunch of other candidates who would range from mildly to severely problematic.

clare.malone: He’s also had a couple people drop out of the running publicly, which is interesting.

micah: To me, that’s the first headline: A-list Republicans apparently don’t want aboard the Trump train.

clare.malone: Bob Corker and Joni Ernst both said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

micah: And who knows who else quietly said “no”?

harry: That list really isn’t impressive. You have Gingrich, whose polling at times has been worse than Trump’s; Christie, whose approval rating in New Jersey is lower than Snooki’s; and Flynn, who looked out of his depth on ABC’s “This Week.” Finally, there’s Pence, who is fighting for his political life in Indiana and is, to quote Nate, “average.”

clare.malone: So what you’re saying is, this is a great election for the B-list? I think that’s true. Newt Gingrich is on his eighth political life, which I find oddly comforting and very American.

natesilver: Of course, there’s the question of whether the Republicans have an A-list at all. But it’s conspicuous that none of the people who survived the longest against Trump — meaning Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Marco Rubio — are on the short list.

clare.malone: I think they do have an A-list, Nate. Paul Ryan is on it. I’m not quite sure who else at this point? Maybe Nikki Haley and some of the other governors.

micah: Susana Martinez? Rubio?

clare.malone: No one wants to be caught up in this year’s highly possible train wreck. If things go awry, they want plausible deniability that they had anything to do with it.

micah: Let’s give Nate a second to tout Rubio as VP …

natesilver: Rubio has gone from overrated to underrated. [hit by falling anvil] But he would check a lot of boxes: Florida, Hispanic, vetted enough (considering that he ran for president).

You could argue that his exit from the race was not particularly dignified, that he isn’t a good political performer, etc. But a “normal” Republican nominee would have Rubio on his shortlist, whether or not he was ultimately the pick. And probably Haley too.

harry: One does wonder if Trump has a super secret name waiting. Trump’s campaign has been so unpredictable, so wouldn’t someone like a Rubio almost fit? (Then again, Rubio just declared he was running for Senate like two seconds ago.)

clare.malone: I’m skeptical the Trump camp could keep a super secret choice secret.

harry: That’s what they’d like you to think.

natesilver: Trump’s has been very much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get campaign so far. They do theater, but they don’t really do subterfuge.

micah: All right, so let’s talk about the real (supposedly) list. Pence first. The conventional wisdom is that Pence is a play to shore up the conservative base.

clare.malone: He is very Koch-y. He’s the guy that you go to because he would know how to work Congress, would maybe get the campaign some money from people who otherwise feel that it’s on a runaway train to political hell.

natesilver: I don’t know about that, Clare. He’s not much of a libertarian on social issues, and made pretty much no one happy on how he handled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (aka Indiana’s anti-gay law).

harry: Pence is quite conservative. He was more conservative than 86 percent of Republicans in his last term in the House.

clare.malone: The Koch connections I think are less libertarian than they are the money/relationship trail — people who have worked for Pence work for Americans for Prosperity; he once worked for one of their state-level think tanks. There is still a lot of common ground.

And also, I would say it’s perhaps not thought of as a bad look for Trump to appeal to a base of conservative Christians who might still have qualms about his personal life and the way he comports himself generally.

harry: The website OnTheIssues describes Pence as a “hard-core conservative” with about an equal score for social and economic conservatism. I also know a guy who drove Pence around during one of his congressional bids. He was very think-tanky.

clare.malone: Also, Pence looks a little bit like Bobby Knight, who we know Trump loves. So. There’s that.

natesilver: Harry, you’re starting to sound like Thomas Friedman or Peggy Noonan — having conversations with your taxi driver.

micah: Picking Pence seems very not Trumpian, in the sense that it wouldn’t entail much showmanship/excitement.

natesilver: I wouldn’t overthink it. Pence is basically a generic, qualified, league-average conservative (maybe very conservative) Republican. Which would make him a B-/C+ choice under ordinary circumstances. But it still probably makes him the best choice on Trump’s list.

clare.malone: It’s the hand of Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, at work, I would say. He’s trying to maintain a sense of order and also a reason for conservatives to get excited — a guy who used to run a think tank about conservative ideas is likely to get those people going, i.e., some of the Cruzians.

harry: Let’s put it this way: Pence is not a Dumpster fire pick, and that in itself may be good enough.

natesilver: There’s the question, however, of whether Pence would say yes. The reporting suggests he would say yes, but he has more to lose than most of the others on Trump’s list.

micah: What does he have to lose?

clare.malone: Well, Pence also has a pretty close re-election race in Indiana. Maybe he’s nervous, and veep seems like a good option, all things considered.

natesilver: First, Trump is probably going to lose. Look at the track record of what happens to VPs on losing tickets. It’s pretty ugly.

harry: Excuse me, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. won the 1964 New Hampshire primary.

natesilver: Second, Pence couldn’t run for both VP and governor at the same time, per Indiana law. So he’d give up a probable — though far from assured, based on the polling — second term. Third, there’s the chance that Trump’s campaign will not hold up very well to history and will seem reactionary and revanchist. And Pence might go down in the history books as the Trivial Pursuit answer to “Who was Donald Trump’s running mate?” as Curtis LeMay did to George Wallace.

micah: Which is maybe why so many Republicans have bowed out. And why someone like Gingrich would be game?

clare.malone: I think those who will survive the 2016 cycle are going to be the patient ones, the ones who resisted the siren song of ingratiating themselves to Trump for the quick accumulation of power … i.e., doing the opposite of what Chris Christie did.

I think someone like Gingrich, who is older than Trump — both in their 70s, which is striking for a ticket! — is looking for relevance again, and honestly, I’m sure being on the Trump campaign seems kinda fun to him.

natesilver: There’s also upside, of course! There’s a 20-25 percent chance (if you trust our forecasts) that Trump wins and that you’ll become vice president! And maybe Pence is enough of a bit player that he figures he doesn’t have much to lose, or that he’s serving the greater good by tempering Trump’s worst instincts.

What we know, though, is that a lot of the people in a vaguely similar position to Pence — Corker, say — have weighed the pluses and minuses and bowed out. So I don’t totally rule out that Pence could have a last-minute change of heart. But Gingrich — now, there’s a guy you don’t even have to ask. You just call him and tell him he got the job.

clare.malone: I think what it tells us is who are the real optimists in Trump world — he’ll win! — or as Nate says, the people who have nothing to lose.

harry: Gingrich hasn’t won an election to anything in 18 years. He was born in 1943. Pence can win re-election to be governor. He was born in 1959. The differences couldn’t be starker.

micah: What are Gingrich’s pluses and minuses as a VP from Trump’s POV?

natesilver: He’s like a Trump Mini-Me, basically.

clare.malone: Which I think is a downside. Trump might worry that Newt would steal some limelight. He too says wacky things!

micah: Steal the limelight from Trump!?

harry: Moon Colony.

natesilver: He’s Geena Davis to Trump’s Susan Sarandon as they ride off into the abyss together:

harry: That 1990s reference fits in very well with this election.

micah: Gingrich would bring experience with Congress, if Trump is thinking about governing. But is Gingrich popular? Among the electorate overall or Republicans in particular?

natesilver: Gingrich is just as unpopular as Trump, which isn’t easy to accomplish. He’d also be the oldest person elected vice president ever.

harry: Gingrich has a favorable rating of 32 percent and an unfavorable rating of 48 percent, according to a recent YouGov survey. His favorable rating is 56 percent among Republicans, however! I should also note that this is an improvement from what his favorable rating was when he ran for president in 2012. (It was 24 percent then.)

clare.malone: What’s Trump’s right now? With the base?

harry: Trump’s favorable rating among all Americans in the YouGov poll was 32 percent. Among Republicans, it was 66 percent.

clare.malone: Hmmm.

harry: Christie has a 34 percent favorable rating in the same YouGov survey. Among Republicans it is 54 percent.

clare.malone: Wow, beaten by Newt.

natesilver: Absent any reporting, I would have thought that Christie — and maybe Sessions — would have represented the more likely choices for Trump. They’re both quite likely to say yes, and they’re both Trumpian enough, but they aren’t quite the flaming Dumpster fire that Gingrich would be. But the reporting has seemed to refer to Christie as more of a backup option.

clare.malone: I thought Sessions was a for sure serious kinda pick — he basically forms Trump’s policy bona fides, he’s an immigration hard-liner and his former staff now serves on Trump’s campaign.

natesilver: I’d buy some Sessions stock on betting markets, where he’s at just 6 percent. But for Christie — being “better than Newt” is damning with faint praise, obviously. Christie has a lot of natural political acumen — good debater, good speaker — but there’s a lot of evidence that the public has grown really tired of his act.

micah: If Trump were going just by favorability, Harry, who would he pick?

natesilver: Bernie Sanders.

clare.malone: 👏

harry: I guess Pence, if only because we don’t have a poll of his national favorability rating, but we know Americans aren’t in love with either Christie or Gingrich.

natesilver: One risk to picking a relative unknown — like Pence or certainly Flynn, who we’ll discuss in a moment — is that there’s going to be a scramble among the press and the campaigns to fill in the blanks around that person. If you run a fly-by-night press operation, like Trump does, that might put you at a disadvantage — especially if you haven’t spent all that much time vetting the candidate yourself.

clare.malone: We call that “Palin-ing.”

micah: But Flynn, coming from the U.S. military, would certainly seem to reinforce some of Trump’s major themes.

natesilver: Do you really want to turn this election into a referendum on foreign policy, though, and remind voters that Trump would have his finger on the nuclear button?

micah: But maybe they would feel better about that finger and that button with Flynn in the administration?

harry: Flynn has unknown baggage.

natesilver: If it were a beloved figure like Eisenhower or Norman Schwarzkopf — or the pre-Iraq War Colin Powell — that’d be one thing. A largely unknown general, though, who has a VERY hawkish, axis-of-evil-type foreign policy vision? I don’t know.

clare.malone: I will say that while a general has a lot of the external trappings that people might like — patriotism personified — his actual policies might be ones that turn Republicans off. There has been a lot of backlash to further interventions abroad, people complaining about how Bush saddled the U.S. with a boatload of debt, etc. Flynn is obviously most focused on defeating ISIS-types, but what are his stances on further interventions? When you drill down to it, what are Americans thinking about that?

micah: Really good point.

harry: Flynn is friendly with Russia.

natesilver: And he’s pro-choice — although he tried to flip-flop on that position this morning — which creates other issues.

micah: I mean, at the risk of pissing off the reader so far into this chat: The VP pick, whomever it is, is unlikely to have much effect on the race one way or the other, right?

harry: The political science research doesn’t reach definitive conclusions, but it basically shows that your VP pick can hurt, it probably doesn’t help you that much, and it can, in certain instances, help in the VP’s home state, though the research on that is shaky.

natesilver: I’ve heard people advocate for the Flynn pick with the reasoning that Trump is behind and might as well take a risk, but I think that logic can be taken too far.

micah: Again, see Palin, Sarah.

All right, final thoughts?

harry: He should pick Pence.

clare.malone: Being vice president doesn’t seem that great.

natesilver: If I were advising Trump, I’d advise him to offer Pence the job, and if I were advising Pence, I’d advise him to turn it down.

clare.malone: Life Coaching by Nate Silver … this seems like a good business model.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.