|Dear Readers: Join us today at noon eastern for an online panel on the 2020 Veepstakes. Marquette University’s Julia Azari; the Washington Post’s David Byler; VP expert Joel Goldstein; and the Brennan Center’s Ted Johnson will discuss Joe Biden’s possible choices, the electoral importance of running mates, and more.
The panel will be streamed at: https://livestream.com/tavco/veepstakes
If you have a question you’d like us to ask the panel, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik will moderate the panel; below, Kyle assesses the vice presidential decision for Donald Trump. All signs point to a repeat of Trump-Pence for 2020, although there are a few reasons why Trump making a different choice can’t be completely ruled out.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— History, and the president’s own public statements, suggest that the Trump-Pence ticket will stick together in 2020.
— The last time an elected president running for reelection changed his running mate was Franklin Roosevelt way back in 1944.
— But there are some reasons to believe that Trump could revisit his running mate choice between now and the Republican National Convention.
Trump-Pence 2020 (?)
There’s no real indication that President Donald Trump is considering replacing Vice President Mike Pence on his ticket this year, and there are at least two major reasons for why this seems unlikely.
Those are the president’s own public comments, and history.
Yet there are three other reasons why we would not necessarily rule it out: The possibility that Pence’s specific appeal is now redundant; the high level of turnover in this administration; and the potential for the president to become desperate as the November election gets closer.
Trump has publicly said he will keep Pence on the ticket, and there has been little recent reporting about the possibility of Trump running with someone else recently. Given how often the musings of the president make it into news coverage, that probably suggests Trump replacing Pence is not being seriously discussed in the Trump campaign at this time.
Politicians change their mind about such things all the time, but Trump has fairly aggressively defended Pence’s place on the ticket, saying in early March that replacing his vice president would be “a great act of disloyalty” to Pence.
The vice president, for his part, has been unswervingly loyal to the president in his own public comments throughout the Trump presidency, and he has remained a major campaign surrogate for the president.
There is also the history. We are in the midst of a long era in which presidents have kept their running mates when they seek reelection.
As vice presidential historian Joel Goldstein has documented in detail for the Crystal Ball, a sitting president swapping out his running mate for his reelection bid has not happened in a long time. The last time a sitting vice president did not appear on the presidential ticket of the sitting president was Nelson Rockefeller in 1976, although this example is filled with caveats. The president, Gerard Ford, only ascended to first the vice presidency and then the presidency because of the resignations of, respectively, Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1973 and then President Richard Nixon in 1974. Ford picked Rockefeller to serve as his vice president, but he ran in the 1976 election with Bob Dole, then a Kansas senator.
In reality, the last elected, sitting vice president replaced as an incumbent’s running mate was Henry Wallace, who President Franklin Roosevelt and Democratic leaders replaced during Roosevelt’s bid for a fourth term in 1944. Wallace’s replacement was Harry Truman. This ended up being a highly consequential choice, as Truman would become president just a few months into his term as vice president following Roosevelt’s death in April 1945.
The Wallace replacement represents something of a dividing line between a time when vice presidential running mates changed fairly often to an era when they didn’t change at all. Since FDR, no elected president running for reelection to a second term has dropped a running mate.
Would Trump break the recent precedent? Again, he has not given much if any public indication that he might.
However, there are at least three reasons why Trump could explore picking a different running mate
1. The benefits that Pence brings to the ticket may no longer be needed
While discerning the actual electoral benefit of vice presidential selection is difficult, there is a logical case to be made that Pence ended up being a good choice for Trump. At this time four years ago, there were real questions about whether Trump, if elected, would reliably pursue the conservative social issue goals that motivate many white evangelical Christians, a bloc of voters that forms one of the pillars of the modern Republican Party. Pence, who is an evangelical Christian himself and is strongly conservative on social issues, perhaps reassured this bloc of voters: According to exit polls, Trump won white evangelical Christians 80%-16%, a performance better than even George W. Bush in 2004. Pence went from being an embattled governor of Indiana who was not necessarily guaranteed to win reelection in 2016 to an asset on a winning presidential ticket.
Since being elected, Trump has made it a point to fill the courts with as many social conservatives as possible, and he has supported and acknowledged social conservatives in other ways. He has become an even more beloved figure among many evangelical leaders than he was as a candidate, and his evangelical support appears to remain rock-solid.
It’s quite possible that Trump would have performed just as strongly with these voters without Pence; after all, white evangelical Christians have been and continue to be a strongly Republican group. However, if in fact Pence provided some needed reassurance to these voters — again, maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t — it is probably the case that Trump no longer needs Pence’s help with them given the way Trump has governed.
In this sense, Pence may have been an important electoral asset in 2016 but is no longer needed in 2020, and Trump could attempt to use the vice presidential slot as a tool to reach out to a different group of voters.
2. Trump shuffles the personnel deck often
The Brookings Institution has found higher levels of turnover in the Trump administration than in other recent presidential administrations. Trump’s original secretaries of defense and state — arguably the top two Cabinet positions — have long since left the scene (Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who holds what is probably the other most prominent Cabinet position, has been the only person to hold that job under Trump). Trump has also had four different national security advisers and four different chiefs of staff.
Again, none of this predicts anything about Pence’s position. But turnover has been common in this administration (and in the Trump 2016 campaign that preceded it). Anyone serving in the administration of the president who popularized the term “you’re fired” has to remain at least a little bit on edge.
Those inclined to see ulterior motives in every Trump move have suggested that Pence’s significant and prominent role in the administration’s coronavirus response gives Trump a useful fall guy if he needs one. Whether that’s a fair characterization or not, it does provide a useful segue into the third reason that Trump might pick a different running mate.
3. Trump might be desperate
Despite the public health crisis and the immense disruption of the economy, the presidential race hasn’t changed all that much over the past couple of months. Joe Biden still leads Donald Trump in national polling: Biden was up about a half dozen points on St. Patrick’s Day in the RealClearPolitics national polling average, and he was up about the same amount on Wednesday. This may basically be how the race goes all the way until November: Biden leading but not necessarily by enough to look at him as a very significant favorite, particularly if Trump runs ahead of his national polling in the most important swing states (as he did in 2016). Our own sense is that the president was better-positioned to win a few months ago than he is now, but we also don’t really see Biden or Trump as a strong favorite in the fall yet.
However, one possible scenario is that Biden’s lead expands a bit in the coming months as the president struggles with criticism of his response to coronavirus and the economic fallout. If that happens, the president may find himself in an increasingly desperate position and possessing limited options to change the trajectory of the election.
One of the few cards Trump could play in such a scenario would be to change his running mate. That’s not to say that he would do it, or that it would have much electoral impact if he did, but it is an option available to Trump if he feels like he needs to do something to change the electoral calculus.
If Trump did replace Pence, the name that has seemed to come up the most as a potential replacement is Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations and South Carolina governor. Trump could consider Haley or many others beyond her.
In the event of a Trump-Haley ticket, observers would certainly note that the ticket change was designed to make the GOP ticket more appealing to women and minorities. How much of an effect the change actually would have is an open question — the demonstrable electoral impact of running mates is typically modest, even in their home states, although political scientists sometimes disagree about how modest the impact is.
Overall, there’s not much reason to think Trump will run with anyone other than Pence. Beyond what’s noted above, it is probably the case that changing a running mate in the modern era is potentially just more trouble than it’s worth. But as the vice presidential focus, with good reason, has turned to which woman Joe Biden will select as his running mate, it is worth remembering that Trump himself does have a choice, too. While it seems like Trump has already decided on Pence, he still has until the late August Republican National Convention to change his mind.