When then-Vice President Mike Pence spoke outside Baltimore at the 2020 Republican National Convention, he declared: “America needs four more years of President Donald Trump in the White House.”
This week, when Pence officially announces he is running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, he will make the case that he, not Trump, is deserving of four more years in the White House.
Pence is set to enter a growing field of contenders seeking the GOP nomination, setting up an historic rarity in which two former running mates become rivals.
Pence’s allies see an affable candidate with a consistent conservative record who can carry on the Trump administration’s policies without the drama. They believe his style and background makes him uniquely suited to perform well in the Iowa caucuses, which would vault him into the upper tier of candidates.
“I think he will resonate. People will want to hear about the type of issues and type of substance he will have. It’s not a kind of shallow politics,” said Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston, who has known Pence for more than 20 years.
But Pence has for months polled well behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), and skeptics of the former vice president’s chances to breakthrough question whether there is a lane for him with GOP primary voters, who have become increasingly focused on culture wars and personality over policy papers and traditional conservatism.
“Overall there’s not an appetite for Mike Pence in a Republican primary,” said Gunner Ramer, political director at the Republican Accountability PAC, a group run by Republicans pushing the party to move on from Trump that has conducted focus groups with GOP voters.
A swath of voters who support Trump view Pence as a traitor for refusing to reject the 2020 election results on Jan. 6, 2021, despite his lack of constitutional authority to do so.
Meanwhile, some Republicans looking to turn the page from Trump prefer DeSantis as a closer approximation of Trump, but without the baggage.
“This idea of a Reagan Republican or a traditional conservative and having all these policy positions, that doesn’t work in today’s Republican Party,” Ramer said. “Voters don’t have interest in that. They want someone who fights culture wars.”
Ramer pointed to the case of former Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.), a five-term congressman with a strong Republican voting record who lost a primary last year largely because he voted to impeach Trump.
A CNN poll released late last month found Pence was the first choice of 6 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning primary voters, trailing Trump, who was the first choice of 53 percent of voters, and DeSantis, who was the first choice of 26 percent.
The poll also found 54 percent of those surveyed said they support or would consider supporting Pence.
A Monmouth University poll released last week asked GOP voters who they’d like to see as the Republican nominee for president, but did not give a list of names. Pence polled at 3 percent, behind Trump at 43 percent and DeSantis at 19 percent.
A March Des Moines Register poll showed 66 percent of self-identified Republicans in the state viewed Pence either somewhat or very favorably, better than Nikki Haley but slightly lower than DeSantis and Trump.
Still, Pence’s team is convinced the former vice president has a path.
They believe Pence has an ability to connect with voters face-to-face that other candidates lack, and they brush aside his current standing in the polls by noting the presumptive favorites at this point in the last few Republican presidential primary cycles did not end up winning the nomination.
Pence advisers see a lane that relies heavily on a strong finish in Iowa, where the former vice president is well known and is more likely to resonate with the large evangelical population that make up the Republican electorate.
Pence has already been to the Hawkeye State roughly a dozen times before even declaring his candidacy. His campaign launch will have an Iowa focus, with a CNN town hall in Des Moines. A Pence adviser said the former vice president is prepared to travel to all 99 counties in the state to reach voters where they are.
Those who have known him for a long time like to say he is “known well, but not well known,” and that retail politics in the living rooms and restaurants of Iowa will allow him to better connect with Iowa caucus goers. Committed to America, a pro-Pence super PAC, will also assist with organizing and educating voters about the former vice president’s record.
“I think there’s always this Iowa dream from midwestern politicians that their religious values, understanding of agriculture in small town America, makes Iowa a ripe setting for them,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian. “So, Pence might be looking at Iowa and saying, ‘I could run well there. That’s my constituency.’ If Pence comes and wins Iowa or comes in second, he becomes part of a national conversation.”
Pence is also betting that voters reward substance over style, as he has already laid out detailed policy views on issues others have dodged.
Where others have danced around the issue of abortion, Pence has been clear that he is adamantly opposed to the procedure, saying a federal ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy should be considered.
Where Trump has urged Republicans to leave Social Security and Medicare untouched, Pence has called for “common sense” reforms to entitlement programs to address their solvency and the nation’s debt.
And where DeSantis has referred to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” and he and Trump have questioned U.S. support for Ukraine, Pence has been clear that it is in America’s interest to provide aid to the Ukrainians.
Ultimately, though, the unique nature of Pence going from unflinchingly loyal to Trump to challenging the former president for the nomination is likely to shadow his candidacy from the start.
Pence will make clear his differences with Trump and why he’s decided to go from running mate to challenger in his announcement this week, advisers said, but they argued it would not be what defines the former vice president’s pitch to voters.
“It’s obviously a very present theme on the campaign trail, especially in the mind of the legacy media,” a Pence adviser said. “So to the extent that we’re thinking about it, we’re thinking about a candidate who’s going to draw contrasts with the former president but he’s also going to draw contrasts with the entire field.”
Still, Pence will have to find a way to break through in what has so far shaped up to be a race dominated by Trump and DeSantis. That was on display this week, when campaign stops in Iowa by Trump and DeSantis received outsized attention, making it difficult for candidates like Nikki Haley, Tim Scott or Asa Hutchinson to get a foothold in the conversation.
Where others see a two-man race between Trump and DeSantis, Pence’s camp sees a desire among voters for an alternative option who is experienced, disciplined and able to win a general election.
“We think his message and his track record is going to resonate with these voters,” said Scott Reed, a veteran GOP strategist and co-chair of the pro-Pence super PAC. “We read the news and the polls and we know that Trump and DeSantis are in this big fight, and we’re going to let that go on as we move forward and run our own campaign.”