INDIANAPOLIS – Whether it was North Side Gym in Elkhart or the Southport Fieldhouse, or packing Evansville’s Ford Center with 11,000 supporters in September 2018, President Trump was at the spearhead of a populist movement. His MAGA rallies filled Indiana’s basketball palaces, with thousands who couldn’t get in standing outside.
In contrast, at a solo Oct. 22 campaign rally at Fort Wayne International Airport, Vice President Mike Pence drew a very, very modest 400 supporters.
Both Trump and Pence lost the Nov. 3 election, with Democrat Joe Biden polling more than 80 million votes in a 51-47% victory. Yet 74 million voted for Trump despite the pandemic and the ensuing economic meltdown. Within hours of his loss, Trump was telling friends he is considering a comeback in 2024, just as he kicked off his reelection bid just days after his 2016 upset victory over Hillary Clinton.
Conventional wisdom had it that if Trump lost, somehow, some way it would be Pence who would become the frontrunner. Yet other recent veep losers (Walter Mondale in 1980 and Dan Quayle in 1992) weren’t able to make this comeback.
Craig Dunn, the former Howard County Republican chairman, observed in his Howey Politics Indiana column on Nov. 5, “For a relatively quiet man, Mike Pence has shown that he possesses the grit of a riverboat gambler when it comes to his political career. As a first-term governor, Pence could have served out another four years and then made a run for the highest office in the land in 2020, should Donald Trump not have been elected. It was the safe play, but not the play made by Pence. Instead, Mike Pence threw caution to the wind and hitched his wagon and political fortune to the wild ride of Donald Trump.”
Pence is now chained to however the Trump legacy bears out. A Politico/Morning Consult Poll released this past week had Trump leading Pence 53-12% in a hypothetical 2024 primary matchup, with Donald Trump Jr. at 8%. Other GOP rising stars such as Nikki Haley and Tom Cotton barely registered.
“The wild card in all of this will be the plans and whims of Donald J. Trump,” Dunn observed. “He might decide to make another run in a bid for redemption or weigh in on behalf of one of his children or one of his loyalists. Make no mistake about it, President Trump will happily throw Mike Pence under a bus and label him a loser if it suits his purpose. He has done the same to a litany of qualified and good men and women and Mike Pence should not expect any different treatment.
“President Trump, like him or not, is a death star and tends to destroy anything that enters his orbit,” Dunn added.
Club For Growth President David McIntosh, a close friend of Pence, told Politico before the election, “If President Trump is not reelected and decides to mount that campaign … (Pence) would put any personal ambitions aside to help the president. He holds these things lightly because he knows it’s either a calling for him or it’s not. He’ll spend a lot of time being out there with members when they need to raise money and helping conservative pro-Trump candidates be successful in their races.”
Pence is expected to move back to Indiana, write a book and give paid speeches for the next couple of years. Trump faces an array of post-White House challenges, including tax fraud investigations from New York state (which can’t be vanquished if Trump tries to pardon himself), to hundreds of millions of personal loans coming due in the next four years, to health concerns (he’ll be 78 in 2024). Trump will remain in the headlines, but how his political legacy fares is anyone’s guess.
The danger for the Republican Party is that while Trump drew that royal flush in 2016 to win, the fact is that he lost the popular vote twice, with Joe Biden doubling the margin in this past election. Combined with Al Gore’s 2000 loss to George W. Bush despite winning the popular vote, you’d have to go back to 2004 to find a Republican (George Bush) who won both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Republicans have won the popular vote in two of the last nine elections.
There have been three other former presidents who sought comebacks after failing at reelection, with two of them involving Hoosiers. President Martin Van Buren lost to William Henry Harrison in 1840 and made an unsuccessful attempt as the Free Soil Party nominee in 1848. President Grover Cleveland lost to Benjamin Harrison in 1888, then recaptured the White House in 1892. (Harrison never won the popular vote, either.)
In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt attempted a revival against his hand-picked successor (President William Howard Taft) and lost as the Bull Moose Party nominee to Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the only race featuring three presidents.
A reelection of the Trump/Pence team would have given Pence a significant leg up on the 2024 campaign.
Pence’s plan B? Dunn predicts, “Presuming that Mike Pence still wants the job of president, he now faces the daunting task of facing as many as 20 potential Republican candidates in a beauty pageant that will unfold no more reasonably than the circus sideshow that was the 2016 primary season.”