There has been rampant speculation about the possibility that Donald Trump might not run for re-election in 2020. Online betting markets give near-even odds on him being the Republican nominee in the next election, shockingly low for a first-term incumbent.
Maybe there are good reasons for this speculation, but Trump himself insists he’s running for re-election. He’s even taken the unusual step of already officially filing and launching his campaign, and has spoken often of his intent to serve eight full years. As the nation’s oldest-ever chief executive, he would leave office in 2025 just three months shy of his 79th birthday, a fact that partly fuels the speculation.
But if he does run for re-election, perhaps there’s somebody else who should worry about their place on the GOP’s 2020 ticket: Vice President Mike Pence. Replacing him would be a highly unusual and unorthodox move, but Trump is a highly unusual and unorthodox President.
It’s not unpreceded for an incumbent President to run for re-election with a new running mate. The last time it happened was in 1976, albeit under unique circumstances. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller declined to seek election after he was appointed to fill the vacancy created by Gerald Ford’s ascension to the presidency. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas was tapped to fill the role instead, but the Ford/Dole ticket then lost the general election.
In 1944, such a move had historic consequences when Democratic Party leaders persuaded Franklin Roosevelt to drop incumbent VP Henry Wallace for the more conservative Harry Truman, putting him in line to become president when FDR died less than a year later. Wallace was himself Roosevelt’s second vice president, having replaced Nance Garner on the ticket in 1940.
“You’re Fired, Mr. Vice President”
So why would Donald Trump consider dumping Mike Pence, who has been seen by many as a source of stability and moderation, as well as a useful bridge to congressional and establishment Republicans?
First, and most obviously, is Trump’s rampant habit of turning on his allies for slights both perceived and real. In spite of Pence’s own strenuous denials, the president was probably displeased with reports of Pence laying the groundwork of a “shadow campaign” for 2020.
The president hasn’t taken to attacking Pence on twitter, as he has his own attorney general and his former “chief strategist,” but that could easily change at some point in the next three years. That’s a long time for anybody to stay in Donald Trump’s good graces.
Aside from a tempestuous fit of pique, there are more practical political reasons for Trump to consider making a switch. As an unpopular incumbent, Trump is likely to stick to his favored tactic of taking control of the narrative with dramatic gestures and dominating the headlines. A new face on the ticket could bring new political benefits, and more importantly, it could inject an element of excitement and change into the otherwise difficult task of campaigning for the status quo.
Mike Pence is very well-liked and respected among congressional Republicans, but that is about the extent of his fan base. He is not particularly popular with the general public, and before his elevation to the presidential ticket he seemed to be heading for defeat in his own re-election bid as governor of Indiana.
Trump wasn’t enthusiastic about Pence, either, and seems to have picked him mainly out of the necessity of extending an olive branch to mainstream establishment Republicans as well as evangelical Christians. He reportedly agonized over the decision and even had to be talked out of reversing it at the last minute. The two other contenders on his final shortlist were Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, both temperamentally and ideologically more aligned with Trump.
Replacing Mike Pence in the Veepstakes
So who might Trump choose to replace Pence? Disgraced and scandal-plagued Chris Christie is probably out of consideration, though he was no less of either when Trump came close to picking him in 2016. Gingrich would perhaps be a plausible choice, though he’s currently in Rome with his wife Calista serving as ambassador to the Vatican.
The president’s appreciation for the political value of leaning on former generals seems to have grown, with defense secretary James Mattis and chief of staff John Kelly being two of his most widely-praised appointments. If either is still in favor with Trump in 2020… a big if… then a Trump/Mattis or Trump/Kelly ticket is conceivable.
Two other considerations factor into the decision: appealing to moderate and independent swing voters, and motivating high turnout among the conservative base. Depending on which one the Trump campaign decides it needs more, a new running mate could provide the opportunity to pivot in that direction. Pence doesn’t really do either, but somebody like Mattis might provide the rare combination of both.
Alternately, the campaign could seek to improve its low standing with women and minorities by selecting one as Pence’s replacement on the ticket. Possibilities reportedly considered in 2016 include Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), Gov. Mary Fallin (R-OK), Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC).
Former Gov. Nikki Haley, chosen by Trump to be his ambassador to the UN, would be a particularly strong choice, and is widely seen as harboring presidential ambitions of her own. In addition to the possibility of being the first minority woman on a major-party ticket, Haley would also share Pence’s strong relationship with the Republican establishment.
All things considered, Trump potentially has a lot to gain and very little lose to by replacing Pence on the ticket, and many strong choices to pick from who’d bring greater political advantages. Instead of plotting his own path to the Oval Office, Pence should not take for granted that he’ll have a place on his party’s ticket in 2020.
(Photo of Governor Mike Pence speaking with supporters at a campaign rally for Donald Trump at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona by Gage Skidmore)