Elections

The VP Debate Is Mike Pence’s Final Audition for 2024

Vice President Mike Pence talks to the media at Joint Base Andrews, Md., October 5, 2020. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
Tonight's debate is not without stakes for 2020, but it may matter even more for 2024.

Since Donald Trump selected Mike Pence as his running mate in 2016, Pence has played his part loyally and unreservedly. Much like Joe Biden, he has treated the No. 2 job as a kind of hype-man position for the boss. In his major addresses, Pence is fond of declaring that he brings “greetings from a friend of mine” before going on to identify that man as the president and laying it on a bit thick. At an August speech in Florida, Pence described his friend as “a man who loves the state of Florida and a man who is the most pro-life president in American history.” At a 2019 Venezuela solidarity event, Pence called him “a great champion of liberty in Venezuela and across this hemisphere of freedom.” At the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference, Trump was “a friend of mine and someone history has already proven to be the greatest friend of the Jewish people and the state of Israel ever to sit in the Oval Office.”

It’s a somewhat amusing ritual, and a telling one as well. Pence knows that, for better or worse, he has hitched his wagon to the president. For it to have been worth it when Pence runs for president in 2024, he’ll need to be able to point to an unquestionably loyal track record. So far, so good.

On Wednesday night, Pence will once again go to bat for Trump in a debate with the woman vying for Pence’s job, California senator Kamala Harris. As of Tuesday morning, the Trump campaign’s prognosis is bleak. The RealClearPolitics average has Biden up by a little more than nine points. FiveThirtyEights pegs it at just under nine. The latter has him up in Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, and Ohio, and up by six or more points in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Trump won all seven of those states in 2016; he won Ohio by more than eight. Moreover, there exists a gap in favorability between Biden and Trump that will make it much more difficult for the president to play catch-up the way he did with Hillary Clinton. At the moment, Biden is at +3.3 while Trump sits at -13.2.

Because of the long odds Trump-Pence 2020 faces, Pence may be approaching the vice-presidential debate more worried about laying the groundwork for Pence 2024. It’s no secret that Pence harbors ambitions of occupying the Oval Office one day, and typically the VP debate’s effects on the larger campaign are negligible. If there’s a comeback to be made, it will depend on the strength of a much better and more disciplined effort from Trump, as well as a devastating series of miscalculations from the Biden campaign. On the other hand, how Pence performs could be extremely important for his own prospects four years from now. In 2016, 37 million Americans tuned in to watch Pence and Virginia senator Tim Kaine’s bout. That number should be higher this year, given the age and health concerns at the top of both tickets.

2024 speculation commenced long ago — four Republicans are eyeing a run in Florida alone — and Pence doesn’t fit as cleanly into a “lane” as many of the other candidates do. Josh Hawley, Ron DeSantis, Tom Cotton, and Marco Rubio will all likely be running in what could be called the refined-populist lane. Ted Cruz, Ben Sasse, and Nikki Haley, as well as Rick Scott and Tim Scott will probably run more traditional, fusionist campaigns. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will throw his hat in the ring as well as a potential Trump heir. Tucker Carlson, should he run, will do the same. If, God forbid, Donald Trump Jr. wants to give it a go, his name alone will make for a strong claim to that title as well.

As Trump’s vice president, Pence would seemingly fall into the last category, but he is the least Trumpy in affect of any of them. His politics prior to his association with Trump would suggest that Pence would join those running as fusionists. But that’s the group most prone to seeing association with Trump as a drawback. Pence finds himself straddling a solid yellow line between two very different lanes. Wednesday may give us a clue as to which he plans on merging in to.

Make no mistake, Pence will be effusive in his praise for Trump — the man and the administration — at the debate. He may even carry greetings or a message from his friend at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But there will be more subtle ways by which Pence could show his hand. Will the message he delivers be focused chiefly on the president or the accomplishments of his administration? How much will we hear about Trump’s stamina, courage, and convictions? Will Pence speak of Trump’s “broad-shoulders” and “big heart,” as he has in the past? Or will it be a results-oriented presentation, and if so, what results will Pence highlight: the more Trump-centric ones such as the USMCA and declining crossings at the border, or typical GOP fare such as tax cuts and the appointment of originalists to the federal judiciary?

How well Pence performs under the lights will of course also be important. If he does become a lame duck on November 3, this will have been his final chance to showcase his abilities prior to the 2024 primaries. Should Pence embarrass Kamala Harris in front of tens of millions of people, GOP voters might be much more likely to embrace Pence — he may even enter the race as the front-runner. If he can’t soundly defeat the mistake-prone Harris, what is the case for Pence, a capable campaigner who nevertheless lacks the star power of a Haley, Rubio, Carlson, or Tim Scott, and who will begin his campaign without an obvious lane?

Wednesday’s debate is not without stakes for 2020, but it likely matters even more for 2024. In a December 2019 poll measuring support for potential GOP candidates, Mike Pence came out on top with 40 percent of respondents indicating that he would be their first choice. That’s certainly welcome news for the VP, who benefits from his accumulated Trump-world cred and from evangelical support. But he assuredly loses sleep remembering that Jeb Bush led the Republican pack as late as June 2015 before dropping out after the South Carolina primary with no top-three finishes. Pence’s blandness and lack of solid footing in any one lane no doubt worry him further. To establish himself as the clear front-runner and to attract the early attention of voters and donors, Pence needs a solid, if not a dominant performance. Without one, his most treasured friendship may not have been worth it all.

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