If Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fails to claim victory come Nov. 8, his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, will be on the hunt for a new job.
But even with a loss, the onetime six-term congressman will emerge from this election cycle having significantly raised his national political profile and establishing himself as a potential top-tier contender for his party’s nomination in 2020.
Capitalizing on those strengths won’t be easy, however. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas is the only unsuccessful GOP vice-presidential nominee since the turn of the 20th century to later win the presidential nomination.
And while losing running mates have experienced little success securing the presidential nomination in subsequent elections, sitting GOP vice presidents haven’t fared much better.
Just two — Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush — who finished out their terms have won nominations since 1900.
That means Pence, based on history, could have just as tough a time reaching the top of the ticket if he becomes vice president as if he doesn’t.
Even so, all signs appear to point toward a future White House bid for Pence, which could hinge on the outcome of this election and the public’s lasting perception of his oft-contentious running mate, according to numerous campaign and election experts interviewed by Roll Call.
Eyes on the White House
Pence’s decision to join the Trump campaign added fuel to longstanding speculation about his presidential ambitions. The move was viewed by many as an attempt to leapfrog a difficult re-election campaign and an uncertain future in Indiana politics.
“I think one of the reasons that he was attracted to the vice presidential position in the first place is it gives him a leg up going into 2020 — whether Trump wins or not,” said Candice Nelson, academic director of American University’s Campaign Management Institute.
Before becoming Trump’s running mate, Pence was approached by individuals suggesting he run for president in 2016 — an idea he admitted to have at least briefly entertained. But as the Republican primary field became increasingly crowded, Pence extinguished all rumors surrounding a presidential bid and turned his focus toward securing a second term as governor.
Pence left his options open, however, by endorsing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz before Indiana’s crucial GOP primary in May, and by offering significant praise to front-runner Trump in the process.
Now, as the vice presidential nominee, Pence appears to have conquered one of the most pressing issues he might have faced as a presidential candidate had he passed on Trump’s offer — a lack of name recognition.
“There were a few different knocks on him, but probably the big one was ‘Who in the world is Mike Pence?’” said Christopher Devine, a political science professor at the University of Dayton.
The governor’s heightened political status is evidenced by the large number of Republicans who expressed their desire for Pence, not Trump, to headline the party’s ticket after The Washington Post published a recording last month of lewd comments Trump made about women in 2005.
“Traditionally, those people who do become party nominees have to become national figures in the election cycle before they win their nomination,” said Lara Brown, interim director of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “At that level, Pence has done everything that he possibly could, given the constraints of this cycle.”
A tough job
Achieving a more prominent national stature has taken at least one challenge off Pence’s plate should he seek the presidential nomination in 2020, but more obstacles lie ahead.
One is an issue some experts say dashed the presidential hopes of former Democratic vice presidential nominees Joe Lieberman and John Edwards: the inherent nature of the running mate position.
“Running mates are chosen in a particular context to help out a presidential candidate,” Devine said. When they become the headliner, “what they bring to the ticket might not be as compelling as it was when they were chosen to run alongside the presidential [nominee].”
Pence could find himself in a similar position, as he was chosen by Trump, in part, to help shore up the Christian conservative voter base.
Although, if surveys taken after the vice presidential debate are any indication, his popularity might have already begun spreading to a larger portion of the party.
A Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted in the days following the Oct. 4 debate showed Pence atop the list of preferred Republican presidential nominees in 2020, beating out the likes of Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Brown said there is even a possibility Pence walks away from the 2016 election viewed by Republicans as a uniting force.
“I think a lot of people are looking at him as maybe he could unify all of the factions: the conservatives, the Christian conservatives, the Wall Street businessmen and establishment folks, those who have worked in Washington, as well as the Trump supporters,” she said.
She drew comparisons between Pence and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1920.
“The ticket lost very badly, but [Roosevelt] came out of that election as sort of the Democrats’ best hope,” she said. “So you could see Mike Pence in that kind of a place [after 2016].”
Guilt by association?
Another potential roadblock, though, is the fallout from this year’s campaign.
The Indiana governor could be forced to deal with a negative perception of his association with Trump, as well as the lingering sting of a losing campaign.
“Is the Republican party going to be regretting what happened in 2016 and looking for someone who can repudiate the legacy of the Trump nomination?” Devine asked. “If that’s the case, I think Pence is going to have an awfully hard time.”
A low vote total for the Trump ticket would give the GOP more cause to put this year’s presidential election, and those involved with it, behind them. It would also provide Pence’s potential primary opponents plenty of ammunition, should they choose to use it.
But experts are split on the extent that a Trump loss would harm Pence’s chances in 2020.
“I think it will probably be neutral,” said Nelson, the Campaign Management Institute academic director. “[Pence] in a sense normalized the campaign, at least for a while. I don’t think he’ll be criticized for any negative feelings people have about the Trump campaign if they don’t win.”
Brown sees things differently.
“I think so much depends on the electoral results that it’s tough to know right now if Pence will come out looked upon favorably, or blamed for the bad experiment,” she said. If Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton notches a dominating victory, “Pence ends up being party of not just a losing ticket, but a ticket that the party would like to forget.”
Even while supporting Trump, Pence has also taken steps to put some distance between himself and his ticket mate. He took an opposing stance to Trump on the ongoing conflict in Syria, and has walked back or toned down several of Trump’s remarks.
Home sweet home
Should Pence pursue a presidential bid in 2020 and falter early on — or decline the opportunity altogether — he would still have at least one high-profile seat to run for in his home state.
Incumbent Indiana Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly will be up for re-election in 2018 and, according to one Hoosier Republican strategist, he could be vulnerable given the state’s red hue.
Even though Pence’s chances to win the race might be better than most other GOP challengers, the likelihood that he jumps into a Senate campaign after his current venture isn’t great, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
“I think for a lot of people the idea that he would then come back to Indiana and run for a Senate seat seems not like a step backward, but a strange step,” he said. “Being a senator from the state of Indiana would not necessarily raise his stature or keep it at the level it will be at the time this campaign is over.
Running against an incumbent also heightens the risk of a loss, which could only damage Pence’s profile for future races, especially a presidential primary.
“The worst thing he could do for his prospects in 2020 would be to enter a race and lose it, and go into [that campaign] as a loser,” said Devine, the University of Dayton professor.
Another alternative to a 2020 presidential bid for Pence hinges on the success of his friend and Indiana lieutenant governor, Eric Holcomb, who took his spot in the state’s gubernatorial election. Indiana law prevented Pence from simultaneously running for vice president and governor, forcing him to abandon his re-election campaign.
Holcomb is currently locked in a tight race with Democratic nominee John Gregg, who lost to Pence by roughly 3 points in 2012.
If Gregg wins, Pence could try to retake the governor’s mansion — a challenge, Downs said, that could pan out well for its current occupant, although it would rule out a presidential campaign in that same year.
Running for governor in 2020 would mean Pence would have to confront some of the controversial decisions he made during his first term, including his support for legislation many viewed as discriminatory against LGBT people, and his attempt at creating a state-run news service.
“I would expect him to be pretty successful [in Indiana],” said Downs. “He may have to spend more money than somebody who didn’t have those negatives, but anybody who wouldn’t consider Pence to be the [Republican primary] frontrunner, I think, would be making a pretty big mistake.”
Even with multiple fallback options, the majority of campaign experts Roll Call spoke with suggested Pence’s best course of action coming off of a losing campaign and positioning for a presidential run is to stump for down-ballot candidates, and find other means of assisting the party.
“Just figuring out ways to keep himself in the spotlight,” Nelson said. That, she said, should include speaking on behalf of Senate candidates in 2018 and working to help other House and state-level candidates, “particularly in his area of the country.”
Pence could also become a contributor to national cable or radio outlets, which, Devine said, would allow him to remain visible and plays nicely into his background as a conservative radio host.
And while a job in the media and an extended speaking schedule are both viable options, Brown said it could be tougher for Pence to stay in the national conversation than a primary candidate who holds public office during the campaign.
“He will have a difficult time [of that],” she said. “This is where he will be looking for ways to make himself relevant that Ted Cruz, [and] Marco Rubio, should he win in 2016, will not have a problem with.”