Isaac Schorr argues that last night’s debate was “Mike Pence’s final audition for the 2024 GOP primary. He aced that audition, and very well could become president one day.” I agree that Pence generally did well, and reminded Republicans of what it is like to have a normal, competent, articulate spokesman for their ideas on the stage — while doing so in the person of a man whom Donald Trump’s most devoted supporters can trust not to throw the president under the bus. If a Republican primary was held today to replace Trump, Pence would surely be the frontrunner.
But that is from the perspective of today. If Trump pulls out another upset victory on November 3 and serves out the full four years of his second term, Pence will almost certainly be the nominee in 2024, or at least a powerful frontrunner. Al Gore in 2000, George H. W. Bush in 1988, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Richard Nixon in 1960 were the last four sitting vice presidents to seek the presidency after a two-term president stepped down, and they all won the nomination (although Humphrey is not much of a precedent, as he did not win a single primary and was selected by the convention only after his chief rival was assassinated). But if Trump loses — especially if he loses badly, with Republicans losing the Senate and faring poorly further downticket — there will be a lot of hunger in the party to turn the page on Trump and choose someone not tied to him at the hip.
This does not mean that the party will suddenly veer to the left and select a Larry Hogan or Charlie Baker–style social liberal, or that it is likely to get behind someone widely identified with anti-Trump sentiment within the party. Even vanquished, Trump will have too much residual support for that, and will probably devote his Twitter account to trashing any candidate he sees as having worked against him. But nobody will want 2024 to be a second referendum on an election Republicans lost. Pence might eke out the nomination in 2024 if he faces a fractured field (Walter Mondale bounced back from the 1980 Carter disaster to do so — but consider how that ended), but unless this year’s Republican ticket can make a credible showing a month from now, he will fail the audition that really matters for a vice president who wants to become the candidate in his own right.