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Mike Pence is a man without a constituency

It’s not yet clear who exactly his Republican supporters would be.

Former US Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the Federalist Society’s Executive Branch Review Conference at the Mayflower Hotel on April 25, 2023, in Washington, DC. 
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Former Vice President Mike Pence is once again taking on his former boss, this time as a challenger for the presidency.

Pence officially announced his candidacy on Wednesday after doing swings through primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. As part of his pitch, he’s set to frame himself as a traditional “Reagan conservative” concerned about fiscal responsibility, but with a heavier emphasis on social issues like abortion.

It’s unclear, however, how much of a constituency that message and his candidacy have, given the party’s shift toward populism and the staunch support many voters still have for former President Donald Trump.

“This campaign is going to reintroduce Mike Pence to the country as his own man, not as vice president, but as a true economic, social, and national security conservative — a Reagan conservative,” Scott Reed, a co-chair for Pence’s Committed to America Super PAC, told reporters in May. Pence’s goal is to rally a coalition of evangelical voters and more traditional fiscal and social conservatives as he tries to defeat Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and the other competitors in a crowded primary field.

Whether he’ll be able to do that, however, is in doubt. Currently, FiveThirtyEight’s polling average has Pence lagging Trump and DeSantis by wide margins. Trump is far ahead with 54 percent support, DeSantis follows with 21 percent, and Pence comes in third with 5 percent. Pence’s past confrontation with Trump over the latter’s attempts to undermine the 2020 election results, and his work for the administration, also make it difficult for him to win over either Trump loyalists or the narrower segment of Republicans who oppose the former president, respectively. Because of that dynamic, it’s uncertain who the supporters of his candidacy will be.

“With the red meat Republican base voters, they think he betrayed Trump on January 6,” says Gunner Ramer, the political director of the Republican Accountability Project, an anti-Trump GOP group that’s not affiliated with any candidates. “The Never Trump Republicans don’t like him because he worked for Trump.”

Pence has to navigate competition — and confrontation — with Trump

A former governor of Indiana and longtime House member prior to becoming Trump’s vice president, Pence has government experience and conservative bona fides he can lean into as part of his campaign. Already, he has said he’s open to cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and expressed robust backing for Ukraine, both positions that contrast heavily with how Trump and DeSantis have approached these topics.

He’s also long held more hard-line positions on restricting abortion, and he previously opposed same-sex marriage. As Republicans have tried to navigate the political backlash they’ve faced in being too harsh on abortion, Pence has been one of the few prominent candidates who has embraced a legal challenge of medication abortion and efforts to take it “off the market.” Pence has emphasized, too, his commitment to religious liberty and that he believes marriage is “between a man and a woman.”

“His authenticity, experience, and conservative credentials are second to none in the field, and those things will stand out—particularly in Iowa—as the campaign unfolds,” said Michael Ricci, a communications strategist for Committed to America.

The question, however, is whether a large enough contingent of Republican voters is interested in this message and whether it would differentiate him enough from a packed field. Pence has called for Republicans to resist “unprincipled populists” and ideas that have taken hold since Trump’s presidency, including isolationist foreign policy and anti-democratic sentiments. Many Republican voters are increasingly open to these stances. “Mike Pence is making a pitch that would make sense if it was 15 or 20 years ago,” says Ramer.

Many of the socially conservative voters Pence is looking to appeal to are also still fans of Trump, and it’s uncertain if Pence will be able to change that. In a spring focus group the Republican Accountability Project did with eight Evangelical voters, seven of the eight chose Trump as the candidate they’d support between him and Pence, while the last person abstained. A February 2023 Monmouth poll also found that 34 percent of Evangelical voters said they’d like to see Trump as the nominee, 32 percent said DeSantis, and 3 percent said Pence.

Pence is famously known for refusing to challenge the election results on January 6 as Trump demanded (a power Pence did not even legally have), and being a major target of the president in the rally leading up to the insurrection. Since then, Pence has called out Trump for endangering his family and other people at the Capitol, though he’s also stopped short of full-blown critiques on other issues like the indictment the former president faced in New York.

The decision to hold back on more aggressive attacks on Trump could be driven by the enduring advantage he still has in the party. “What we have seen over the last half dozen, eight years now is that Donald Trump is a more durably popular figure than anybody else they’ve been able to bring down the pike,” says Johns Hopkins political scientist Daniel Schlozman.

But between that lack of a clean break with Trump and his constructive work within the administration for most of his tenure as vice president, Pence also has a difficult job appealing to Republicans who completely oppose the former president, making finding his lane all the more difficult. “The Trumpists are angry with him. The Never Trumpists are mad at him for his being part of the administration and support of an impeached, convicted insurrection promoter. It’s a hard path,” says Republican strategist Chip Felkel.

Update, June 7, 11 am ET: This story was originally published on June 1 and has been updated multiple times, most recently to reflect Pence’s official announcement.

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