What is Mike Pence thinking?

Former Vice President Mike Pence on a motorcycle
Former Vice President Mike Pence on a motorcycle Scott Olson / Getty Images

Former Vice President Mike Pence filed paperwork officially launching his campaign for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He will do battle his old boss, former President Donald Trump, to become his party's candidate in the general election. Trump is dominating in the polls so far, followed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Pence is mired in single digits, fighting for a distant third place with the rest of the growing field.

Pence has fallen out of favor with the GOP's MAGA base after refusing Trump's call to block the certification of President Biden's 2020 election victory. Pence has distanced himself from Trump since a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, hoping to keep Trump in power by getting Congress to reverse the election results. Some in Pence's inner circle had tried to discourage him from going for the White House, arguing he would be better positioned to win Indiana's open Senate seat in 2024.

Pence's "largest task will be attempting to win back Republicans who largely cast him aside following Donald Trump's presidency," according to Politico. But it won't be easy. "He has occasionally faced boos from the MAGA base at GOP confabs in places such as a Faith & Freedom Coalition conference in Florida in 2021 and even on his home turf at a National Rifle Association meeting in Indianapolis this year," Politico added. Most political analysts give Pence little to no chance of winning the nomination. Given such long odds, why is he running?

The obvious answer

The question isn't why Pence is running, said Ben Mathis-Lilley at Slate. The man wants to be president — "that much has been clear since he accepted an invitation to be Donald Trump's running mate in 2016 despite his obvious incompatibility." He's "a 'traditional family values' guy and national security 'hawk,'" while Trump is "pretty obviously a case of careerism over principle." The real puzzler is why Pence thinks he has any chance of winning.

It's "far-fetched" to think anyone as fiscally and socially conservative as Pence can win a general election. But he's also unlikely to win the primaries, even if Trump implodes. DeSantis has far more money, and Sen. Tim Scott can match Pence's "return-to-traditional-Republican-values theme," without all the Trump-era baggage Pence has to lug around.

Pence could win, in theory

A candidate with Pence's resume should have a chance, said Anthony Zurcher and Sam Cabral at BBC News. He has served in Congress, as governor, and as vice president. He "had multiple high-profile administration roles and four years to build connections with his party's grass-roots." His biggest strength is his "long history of close ties to the U.S. evangelical community," which was the main reason Trump, a "thrice-married New Yorker with considerable personal baggage," needed him on his ticket in the first place. But for Pence to have a chance Trump has to "falter." And even then Pence won't automatically get the evangelical vote, with all the other strong conservatives in the primary field.

He's living in a fantasy world

"Trump is vulnerable," said Keith Naughton in The Hill. So Pence has this "fantasy" about filling his former boss' place. And there was a moment when he could have seized the role of the GOP's main alternative to Trump. "Untainted by scandal," Pence could have taken ownership of popular Trump administration policies, leading Trump voters "without the schizophrenic indiscipline and manic rage that even many in the MAGA crowd found off-putting (and repelled independents into the Biden camp)."

Unfortunately, he "choked in the clutch" when he failed to "come out resolutely against Trump as the future nominee" after his second impeachment. "Pence wilted" under the heat, and since then "Republican voters have abandoned Pence in droves." The main reason for Pence's "pointless candidacy" now is "his inability to come to grips with political reality."

But he could still foil Trump's comeback

Pence is an afterthought "as long as he's polling in the single digits," said Ross Douthat at The New York Times. He'll have an opportunity to stand out in the debates as "the Republican with the strongest incentive to attack his former boss on character and fitness rather than just on issues — because his history with Trump sets him apart from the other non-Trump candidates." His "only possible path to the nomination involves persuading primary voters that he was right on Jan. 6 and Trump was wrong." This could make for "interesting theater." If Pence does take Trump down a peg, he "might even help someone beat the former president; that someone, however, is still unlikely to be Pence himself."

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