My colleague Michael Bender wrote this week about the deepening rivalry between Donald Trump and Mike Pence, onetime partners and political allies.
The two men became estranged after Pence declined to support Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election results on Jan. 6, 2021. That same day, the mild-mannered Indianan hid from a mob chanting “Hang Mike Pence” as it stormed the Capitol after being egged on by the president.
This week, they made dueling appearances in Washington and things did not go well for Pence. He drew a small, polite crowd at a gathering of the Young America’s Foundation while Trump basked in a raucous reception at the America First Policy Summit. (For those unfamiliar with these institutions, both represent emerging power centers of the new, Trumpified G.O.P. establishment.)
The split-screen speeches showed that Trump, as Bender notes, is still the big dog in the Republican Party.
“The two appearances also underscored the wide gap in enthusiasm among Republicans between Mr. Trump and any other potential primary rival in 2024,” Bender wrote.
In a New York Times/Siena College poll of Republican voters this month, just 6 percent said they would vote for Pence if he were to run for president two years from now, compared with 49 percent who said they would stick with Trump. Unscientific straw polls of young Republican activists have found Pence faring even worse in hypothetical primaries.
To put the matter plainly: It is difficult to find a Republican strategist who will tell you that Pence has a real chance in a 2024 matchup against his former boss.
Rick Tyler, a former presidential campaign adviser to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, said that Pence had the best chance of nudging Republican voters away from Trump.
The former vice president was being careful and “savvy,” Tyler said, in balancing the need to distance himself from Trump’s worst conduct while paying respect to his administration’s conservative policy achievements.
But it was unclear, he acknowledged, whether Republican primary voters might see things the same way.
Donald Trump, Post-Presidency
The former president remains a potent force in Republican politics.
Trump supporters, Tyler said, were more like fans of pop groups or football teams than traditional voters carefully weighing the pros and cons of other candidates — making it unlikely, he said, that most would ever break with the 45th president for anyone, let alone his loyal former deputy.
The anger factor
If we’ve learned anything from the past seven years of American politics, it is that the base of the Republican Party is deeply angry with the state of affairs in this country. Pence’s nostalgic paeans to broad-shouldered, Ronald Reagan-style conservatism do not seem to be what G.O.P. voters are looking for in their elected leaders. They want fire and brimstone, not low-energy sermons.
And while Trump’s successful 2016 campaign did offer a dose of the usual aspirational optimism that voters like to hear, it focused much more on a list of enemies: the “deep state,” the Republican establishment, Mexican asylum seekers, Muslims, Washington politicians, a metaphorical “swamp” that included Democrats and the mainstream media.
One mistake political pundits often make about voters — and I’m sure I’m guilty of this myself on occasion — is that they tend to overemphasize the extent to which most Americans are attracted to policy ideas and coherent ideologies, rather than to charismatic personalities.
And nobody has ever accused Mike Pence of having a charismatic personality.
‘He wasn’t channeling anyone’s rage’
It’s sometimes forgotten that before Pence rose to national prominence, he hosted a conservative radio talk show in Indiana.
When I was an editor at Politico, during the 2016 campaign we sent a reporter, Darren Samuelsohn, to Indianapolis to dig up old episodes of the show in search of the “real Mike Pence.”
Over some late nights and with the help of plenty of caffeine, Samuelsohn plowed through hours of cassette recordings, listening for insights about what was clearly a formative experience for the future vice president. (For Gen Z readers: Cassettes are an ancient form of audio technology that preceded compact discs, MP3 files and Spotify.)
What we found was revealing in its own way: Pence was pretty much the opposite of a radio shock jock. As a Tea Party stalwart during an earlier era of anti-insider fervor, he criticized many of the same enemies that Trump would later target. But he did it with Midwestern politeness, in a dulcet baritone that was nothing like the Rush Limbaughs or the Howard Sterns of that era.
“Pence’s show had a casually indignant air to it,” Samuelsohn wrote in his analysis. “He wasn’t channeling anyone’s rage. His banter was easygoing as he implored his listeners to dial 800-603-MIKE, ending the week with ‘Open Phone Friday.’ He came out of commercial breaks to a ‘Mike Pence!’ jingle and musical interludes from the likes of Hootie & the Blowfish and a bouncing keyboard version of ‘Great Balls of Fire.’”
A battle of personalities
It’s easy to see this Mike Pence in today’s quixotic pre-2024 maneuvering.
When he criticizes his onetime ally and superior, he does so only obliquely — never by name, and only with carefully manicured phrases like “Some people may choose to focus on the past, but elections are about the future,” as he put it in this week’s speech.
Hmm! What person could he have possibly been referring to here?
Pence has also authorized his closest aides, Marc Short and Greg Jacob, to cooperate with the House committee investigating Jan. 6 as it amasses evidence of Trump’s actions surrounding the riot. But Pence himself has not spoken in any detail about his ordeal that day, reinforcing the impression among many Republican insiders that he is afraid of openly crossing swords with Trump.
Contrast that with Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is younger, angrier and savvier about glomming onto hot-button issues on the right. DeSantis seems to be the flavor of the month, and 25 percent of 2024 Republican primary voters picked him in that same Times/Siena poll, well north of Pence.
As a governor, DeSantis benefits from a platform that allows him to take actions that appeal to Republican activists and plugged-in voters, who have responded enthusiastically to his battles with Disney, teachers and his state’s wilting Democratic Party over L.G.B.T.Q. rights. And he has picked his moments to criticize Trump’s record in office — maneuvering to the right of the former president on the coronavirus pandemic and on cultural issues that have revved up the G.O.P. base, such as critical race theory.
DeSantis might not ultimately be what Republicans are looking for in their next banner carrier, either. Florida strategists and former aides often describe him as thin-skinned and plodding on his feet, with a humorless stump style. And it’s difficult to envision anyone out-brawling Trump in an open 2024 Republican primary.
But DeSantis was, by all accounts, a serious student at Yale even while juggling the punishing demands of being a varsity college athlete. He has a sterling military record, as far as we know. He is whip-smart and skilled at both political combat and tapping into Republican voters’ deep skepticism about the news media. There’s a chance that he will improve just enough, and Trump’s standing in the Republican Party will degrade just enough, to put him in the pole position heading into 2024.
And who knows: Maybe some other person will come along and fire up conservative Iowans and New Hampshirites in the frigid January air.
But Mike Pence? It’s hard to imagine how he will translate his cautious, inch-by-inch break with Trump into a seat in front of the Resolute Desk on Jan. 20, 2025.
What to read tonight
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