On Saturday, October 28th, 2023, Former Vice President Mike Pence suspended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, noting that he had “no regrets” in his pursuit of the White House. While Pence had come into the field with substantial name recognition, most notably from his recent tenure as Vice President, he achieved little momentum and raised little money, both necessary for maintaining the campaign. With his departure, a candidacy that, from a purely political viewpoint, should have made him a somewhat serious contender ended well before the voting began.
Pence’s departure leaves six candidates still in the Republican primary race alongside frontrunner former President Donald Trump: former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, business entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey Governor Christ Christie, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. Yet, like Pence, no other Republican candidate competing for the Republican Party’s presidential spot has seemed to have gained much traction. Trump continues to dominate the Republican field, while his competitors can barely break double-digits in national polls.
Mike Pence’s exit from a surprisingly lopsided Republican presidential primary raises several essential questions. Why did these Republican candidates get involved in the primary in the first place, and, perhaps more importantly, what keeps them in the race?
Grave Political Miscalculation?
Perhaps one explanation for the crowded nature of this Republican primary in the first place is a genuine case of political miscalculation. In particular, miscalculating how much support remained for Donald Trump in the Republican Party.
In the aftermath of Trump’s 2020 loss, Trump seemed, perhaps unwillingly, on his way out of politics, given the traditional thinking that “parties typically aren’t kind to one-term presidents who lost their reelection bids.” Furthermore, the poor performance of Trump-backed candidates in the 2022 midterm elections further saw Trump’s electoral reputation tarnished, coming on the eve of Trump’s presidential announcement.
As supported by the above factors, Trump’s supposed weakness might have mobilized his Republican competitors. For instance, Nikki Haley cited Trump’s inability to win elections to choose a new candidate. Similarly, when Ron DeSantis was polling most strongly against Trump, he expressed concerns that voters “want a vehicle they can get behind,” but “there’s just too many voters that don’t view Trump as that vehicle.”
Now that they are in the race, however, these Republican competitors might have overlooked or underestimated a significant factor: the seemingly unwavering loyalty of Trump’s political base. Indeed, in an NBC News poll taken in January 2023, approximately a third of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters positioned themselves more as Trump supporters than Republicans, while a national survey by a Republican pollster revealed that twenty-eight per cent of Republican primary voters would support an independent Trump run. This data suggests a sizeable group of Republican primary voters, the only voters that matter in the primaries, are solidly behind the former president and unlikely to move.
This might help explain the populated state of the 2024 Republican primary. From here, the question becomes why Trump’s fellow challengers have not exited like Pence.
On the one hand, they could be waiting until primary voting starts in the first months of 2024 to see if Trump’s poll leads are misleading, or if the legal cases against him start to sink his support. Still, that would be investing heavily in the polls being wrong, even though Trump’s lead far exceeds any margin of error. Nevertheless, candidates could be hoping for a lucky break or to save face by not dropping out early.
The more likely option is that some of those still in the race attempt to use it for future gain. Some may be trying to position themselves as possible candidates for Trump’s vice presidential pick, given Mike Pence will not be filling that role, or to gain other favors. Indeed, sometimes political rivals are rewarded either for personal loyalty or as a way of shoring up party support. For instance, Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris, a former competitor, as his vice presidential pick. Even Trump has done this, selecting 2016 candidate Ben Carson as his HUD Secretary.
The current primary has evidence of this, too. For instance, Trump talked about Vivek Ramaswamy as a potential VP pick, praising him for compliments, even though Ramaswamy denied he would accept. Some may point to the increasingly subtle jabs at Trump by Ramaswamy, Haley and DeSantis as evidence that they are not positioning themselves to try and benefit from Trump. Yet, the fact that only Chris Christie has openly and repeatedly attacked Trump suggests the others could be trying to stay in Trump’s good graces.
The final option, which Christie and other candidates likely have in mind, is that they are attempting to use this primary to lay the groundwork for a post-Trump Republican party. Win or lose this election, by 2028, Trump’s time as party leader will likely end. By entering into the 2024 primary, his competitors are setting themselves up as potential successors, presenting their vision for the United States, in most cases without attacking Trump too directly to avoid alienating his voters. By doing this, they may not be the Republican Party’s first choice this time, but they are making it so they could be next time.
Edited by Clara Desfosses
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Featured image by the Gage Skidmore.