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What’s Mike Pence’s path back to the White House?

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Mike Pence wants to be president.

Of course, Pence has always wanted to be president, as so many politicians do. It’s viewed as the championship belt of American democracy, the ultimate achievement in this competition. That’s not particularly healthy, of course; Ideally, the ultimate benefit of public service would be the opportunity to serve the public. But we are none of us naive, so let’s recognize this for what it is.

That motivation is why Pence agreed to be Donald Trump’s running mate. The vice presidency — or even a vice-presidential bid — is a good way to elevate one’s national profile. Pence was cautiously critical of Trump’s positions as the 2016 primaries neared, in keeping with the Republican establishment’s preferred pattern of addressing the insurgent candidate who was expected to collapse at any moment. But then Trump got the nomination and reached out to Pence and there you go.

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Even as he signed up for the No. 2 slot, though, Pence was thinking about how to elide the “vice” from his eventual title. When the “Access Hollywood” tape dropped shortly before the 2016 election, Pence reportedly began to selflessly offer his own services to him as the party nominee. That little hiccup soon resolved, however, and—to broad surprise—Pence ended up one heartbeat away from the brass ring.

For four years, Pence was quietly loyal to Trump, doing his best to keep all parties happy with him — or, at least, not mad. He campaigned with Trump for reelection but, when that failed, he mostly kept his distance from the machinations to seize a second term despite the loss. After the Capitol riot, Pence refused to use the 25th Amendment to oust Trump from office — but also refused to agree to Trump’s half-baked plan to simply reject electoral votes submitted by states his ticket had lost.

And that was it. Five-plus years of sticking by the president collapsed in the face of a demand that Pence put loyalty to Trump over loyalty to the rule of law. For days before Jan. 6, 2021, Trump had put all of the weight of staying in office on Pence’s shoulders; when Pence rejected the idea, Trump cast him out of MAGAland. As recently as last week, Trump fired Pence for doing the only thing he could legally do — which was not the thing Trump wanted.

Yet Pence still obviously wants to be president. He’s doing the things that, in the Before Times, signaled that a nationally known candidate was going to throw his hat in the ring: the policy speeches, the trips to primary states, the outreach. In effect, he’s doing what he always did: treating the Trump presidency as perfectly normal and his own position as a normal position for a politician to hold.

Unfortunately for the former vice president, the normalcy ship sailed long ago. The Republican electorate is not one that responds to the old questions in the same way. And a potential Pence candidacy will be colored by Trump regardless of whether the former president runs.

It’s far too early to make many specific calls about the 2024 presidential primary, but we can make some observations about what we see now. There are two broad pools of Republican voters: those who do and those who don’t pine for a Trumpian Republican in the White House. Soon after Trump left office, his pollster Tony Fabrizio broke this out further into five groups, including far-right conspiracy theorists, but for our purposes this yin-yang will work.

Pence’s play has been to retain appeal to both groups. To be the Trump loyalist and representative of the administration that will get nods from Trump boosters and to be the sane Republican anchor in a turbulent world that can appeal to the Trump-skeptical. He wants to be a bridge between the two, the colossus with one foot on each embankment.

The problem is that he probably will get the downsides of both positions, not the upsides.

Republicans skeptical of Trump — about a third of the party, per Fabrizio — probably will have other, less-Trump-adjacent choices. If one of them seems more viable than Pence, that’s where they’ll go.

Trump supporters, meanwhile, aren’t likely to be enthusiastic about Pence for a number of reasons. The first is that Trump himself might run, and why would a Coca-Cola fan choose RC Cola when Coke’s on the menu? The second is that Pence was never an important part of Trumpism any more than the Republican Party was. He was a remora on Trump’s shark. And the third, of course, is that Trump has spent months blaming Pence for his loss of him.

As the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman put it, Pence wants to frame his dispute with Trump as being all about a one-sided fight in which Trump alone is engaged. This is basically what Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) did as he cruised to his party’s nomination earlier this year. But it’s a lot easier to shrug off Trump when you are an incumbent elected on your own merits than as a potential candidate whose political identity is subsumed by that of the former president.

If Pence’s goal is to be the least erratic, sharper iteration of Trumpism, he’s already getting outplayed. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has the Trumpism-without-Trump lane secured should he choose to run, which he almost certainly will. Things can change; scandals can emerge; voter tastes can shift. But polling from YouGov conducted for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst last month found that DeSantis had a clear second-place advantage among likely primary voters. Most respondents said they’d vote for Trump but a quarter had DeSantis as their first choice. A third of respondents had DeSantis as their second choice — more than had Pence as a choice in their first, second or third slots.

Things change! The primary is a long way off and a lot can happen, including that Trump might decide not to run. But Pence is not in an enviable position.

He presses forward anyway. After all, things can change. Maybe, come 2024, there will be a sudden demand for a guy who can credibly point to “Trump administration” on his resume but who is also seen as reasonable by big donors and long-serving Republicans. Maybe things will fall into place and he can be the Republican Party nominee — though whether he can win the presidency itself is, of course, another question entirely.

As it turns out, then, Pence’s best hope for becoming president is the same one he had from 2017 to 2021: Wait for something to dramatically change and be in the right place to take advantage of it.

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