In a bygone era of politics, former Vice President Mike Pence would be sitting comfortably as the unquestionable heir apparent to the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Even without his White House experience, Pence's experience as a former congressman and governor are the sort of bona fides to make him a formidable candidate. And yet, as the GOP field for the upcoming presidential election starts to take shape, Pence has thus far held back, making feints toward tossing his hat into the race without actually capitalizing on his ostensible status as an elder statesman in the party.
In no small part, Pence's "will-he-won't-he" status is a byproduct of his onetime boss and current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, who not only dominates the nomination race, but has also primed his sizable MAGA base to despise Pence for certifying President Biden's 2020 victory. Adding to that already complicated calculus is the declared candidacy of fellow Trump administration official Nikki Haley, as well as the undeclared Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose presence looms large over the GOP field as a whole.
So what, if anything, is Mike Pence waiting for, and what is he doing in the meantime?
Will he run?
This, more than anything else, is the operative question for Pence who is "considering a run," as reported by The New York Times this week. That consideration, CNN's Chris Cillizza wrote, comes from both an earnest desire to be president, as well as the fact that Pence "knows that if he doesn't run in 2024, it's likely that he will be too far removed from the world of politics to run in 2028 or beyond." With that time crunch in mind, Pence certainly appears to be readying himself for this coming election, vising the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire over the past few months, while releasing the sort of glossy, high-profile memoir that often serves as a precursor for a forthcoming campaign.
Pence has kept a visible media presence, offering a number of speeches, interviews, and opinion essays, avoiding the risk of fading from the public eye ahead of any possible announcement.
The former VP has not shied away from the speculation that he's gearing up for a campaign of his own. "We're listening, we're reflecting, we're talking to firms," he told NBC in late February. "By the spring, our family expects to have a very clear sense of our calling."
Despite his attempts to dodge the question — or at least, avoid giving a definitive answer, Pence "does not seem to lack clarity about or determination about running for president in 2024," even though he insisted to Yahoo News in a lengthy interview Friday that he has "made no decision" about doing so," the outlet reported this week.
So what's Pence's game plan?
Assuming that Pence is running, all his work over the past year seems to point to a broader effort to frame himself as a combination of pre-Trump conservatism, and a post-Trump panacea to the former president's MAGA extremism.
"Pence world has long believed that the former congressman and Indiana governor could occupy the adult-in-a-room 2024 lane, in that he is uniquely positioned to speak truth to power now that he is free of the constraints of the vice presidency," Politico's Adam Wren wrote after Pence's recent speech to the Gridiron Club of D.C.-area media figures, which was conspicuous for the (relative) ferocity with which he went after Trump.
"Pence's inner circle sees the 2008 campaign of the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as a template," Wren reported. "Then, much as Pence is now, McCain found himself written off by other competitors — deemed a relic of an outdated type of politics as he rode around on the Straight Talk Express."
Pence's pre-campaign set-up has also featured some tentative toe-dipping into the ongoing legislative battle over the federal budget and — in particular — the GOP's struggles with how to address entitlements. Speaking with Fox News in February, Pence proclaimed the country needed to replace programs like Social Security and Medicare with a "better deal." In doing so, Pence both harkened back to George W. Bush's 2005 State of the Union address and demonstrated his willingness to engage in a thorny intra-party debate.
Conversely, Pence in the same Gridiron speech also went out of his way to laud the D.C. press corps, telling the assembled journalists that "I don't deny that you infuriate me … and I'm sure I infuriate you … but I genuinely value what you do to keep us a democracy." It's the sort of notable deviation from his former boss's frequent claims of "fake news" and "lying press" that makes sense in the broader context of someone courting a necessary bloc of professionals for his own personal gain in the future.
But can it work?
As Politico's Ryan Lizza asked after the Gridiron speech, D.C. media circles may have appreciated the former VP's remarks, but "will Pence talk like this in front of Iowa Republicans?" A non-televised event is one thing, but "will he show the courage to blast Trump in front of Republican primary voters?"
To Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg, no amount of Pence positioning is enough to surmount his fundamentally untenable position of having "spent four years as Trump's obsequious companion, complimenting the president on everything he did and said." Pivoting to a Trump critic, however, "doesn't get him much credit among the anti-Trump crowd or the pro-Trump wing of the GOP — a wing that accounts for at least a third of the party."
The notion that ideological waffling poses a serious risk to Pence's theoretical campaign was supported by a recently-released CNN poll showing nearly two-thirds of GOP voters prioritizing ideological affinity over winnability in 2024, meaning any appeal to undecided right-leaning anti-Trump voters may not be enough.
Of course, there are still months to go before Republicans will decide who they want to represent their party in 2024, and Pence has plenty of time to continue honing his reintroduction to political life before he announces a presidential run (if he does so at all). But with Trump currently holding a solid lead over the entirety of the GOP field, Pence seemingly has his work cut out for him in making his pitch to rally a majority of conservatives behind him.