In the summer of 2016, Indiana governor Mike Pence was selected as Donald Trump’s running mate. This choice was not to be made lightly, but reporting in June highlighted the struggles then-candidate Trump was facing in selecting a vice presidential candidate. Mainstream moderate Republicans had still refused to endorse him, a simmering consensus emerged that it was not an election Republicans were likely to win in November, and with the 2016 Senate race still in play, pulling candidates away from other key races was potential political suicide. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (all early backers of Trump compared to most members of the party) were among the last names left on the shortlist, and the aim of the Trump campaign was clear. It would need someone who would “balance his brash populist persona with a political profile that includes deep experience in Washington or ties to the party establishment”, according to The Washington Post. We don’t really know whether Christie or Gingrich were ever made an offer to be on the ticket, or if they outright declined because they thought he would lose, or even whether Tom Cotton or eventually-to-be-sentenced Michael Flynn were ready to go on as vice president until Trump changed his mind at the last minute. However it played out, Mike Pence was selected, Donald Trump was elected, and we now live in a world where Pence is a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Mike Pence is also the one man in the administration that President Trump cannot fire. Pence has generally kept to himself within the administration, but his fealty has a limit, and even though Pence is generally a good reflection of Trump’s base, Trump has never seemed quite as adoring of Pence in the same way Pence puts up with or plays nice with him. And this may be because Pence was what was left of a very small and fairly unpopular litter come 2016 VP selection time, with Trump forced to pick among the few who at the time were optimistic, desperate, or motivated to believe that they weren’t jumping on a sinking ship. The fact that he is the only person in the administration that Trump cannot fire may have forced Trump to play his true intentions or motivations closer to his chest than he otherwise would, limited to the errant off-color “joke” regarding the man instead of his more typical bashing of those on his cabinet that has resulted in an unprecedented level of turnover. And, if this is the case, then Trump’s time to be rid of Pence is rapidly approaching in the form of his 2020 reelection campaign.
I do not think this is necessarily likely, because I do think Trump’s lack of political experience still requires him to stress his credibility, that Pence does play to the base (and is not a DC insider), and because portraying stability and playing down turnover will be important for depicting an aura of prudent governance (which has been outside of Trump’s grasp since he was sworn in). But – in a world where Pence has been a persistent thorn in Trump’s side, and Trump truly does not trust his loyalty… here’s how it might play out.
The presidential nominee tends to announce their selection for vice president in advance of the party’s convention, and the party’s vice presidential nominee is officially nominated by confirmation of a majority of the party’s nominating convention. It is most common for the presidential nominee (or presumptive nominee) to have the largest stake in selecting the running mate, and for the party to then approve the nomination. Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, in his 1956 run against Dwight Eisenhower, was the last candidate to leave the selection of the Vice President up to the party’s convention, and there’s not exactly a ton of precedent for an incumbent presidential nominee to overhaul their own reelection ticket.1Though it does make for wonkish discussion! There are a couple of historic moments that offer useful parallels however. In 1940, Vice President John Nance Garner decided to protest Franklin D. Roosevelt’s renomination, believing a third term to be out of bounds. Garner garnished a showing at the Democratic Convention to replace him at the top of the ticket, but Roosevelt still ended up with over 86% of the delegates. This did however mark the first time a presidential candidate chose their own running mate, and set a significant precedent moving forward into the rest of the 20th century, wrassling power away from the convention and towards the unitary candidate’s machine. The party fought back in 1944, as they grew weary of the now Vice President Henry A. Wallace’s friendliness to labor and progressive causes, especially considering Roosevelt’s perceived decline in health — there was a real chance the man they chose would become president. They instead forced the choice of Harry Truman, a US Senator from Missouri,2Or, as he was wittingly referred to, the “Senator from Pendergast”. Pendergast was a political boss who ran the party machine in Kansas City and who provided for Truman’s political success throughout his life. who would indeed ascend to the presidency when Roosevelt died only months into his fourth term.
Both of these examples reflect reactionary choices from the presidential candidate and tensions within the party, but the 1864 National Union Convention may be a more proactive anecdote. Here, the party decided to remove radical Republican Hannibal Hamlin, who had served as VP during Abraham Lincoln’s first term, from their ticket and instead nominated together Lincoln of the Republican Party (popular in the North) and Andrew Johnson of the Democratic Party (who was popular in the South) as candidates nominated jointly by the National Union Party. This solidified the united ticket wherein parties would jointly nominate a team for the presidency and vice presidency. And I think some mix of this (though obviously the circumstances are very different than the Civil War at the moment) and FDR’s intra-partisan incentives would be what it could look like if Trump wanted to shift the ticket.
Were Trump to characteristically throw orthodoxy to the wind and change the ticket, I’d expect this to be done before the Republican Convention in Charlotte, which is in late August of 2020. In fact, I’d surmise it would be at a time that would steal headlines from Democrats, who are facing their own brawl in early 2020 that is likely to dominate most of the news cycle for the year. In January or February, the rumors would abound, and in the spring of 2020 is when I’d expect an announcement to be made in order to seize those precious headlines back from the competitive Democratic primary. But who could it be? Trump doesn’t really need to prove himself to the base at that point, he is the incumbent afterall, and is incredibly popular with his base and his party — so he drops Pence in an appeal to make up some ground. Trump has two strategic ways to do this: make up ground regionally or nationally. He could approach it regionally by putting forward a candidate that will shore up support in a region he needs to win but might be at risk (i.e. competing heavily in the Midwest, which was necessary to his victory in 2016, or trying to stave off Democratic gains in the Southwest); or he could approach it nationally by shoring up support with demographic groups he needs to win (i.e. playing to women voters, minority groups, etc.). Trump is probably better served to play the micro-game here, and just knock off a few chess pieces rather than try to approach it with a general strategy, similar to what his campaign did in 2016. But knowing the appeal of either strategy (or attempting to play to both), here are some prominent names now that Trump (metaphorically) has his pick of the litter:3I’m deliberately not including anyone I really genuinely do not think would say yes, for example – longtime vocal Trump opponents like former Ohio Governor John Kasich – or anyone I think would genuinely never be picked (anymore) even if they might have been a valid choice for him in 2016 – say, Trump’s former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or his former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
Here’s your heavy hitters, the folks that probably wouldn’t have signed on with Trump when they thought he’d lose in 2016, but who now are primed for a step-up and want to be positioned for greatness. These folks would balance out the ticket (more so than Pence currently does), have electoral fire and would be able to headline rallies of their own (more so than Pence certainly is), and promote a unified Republican Party of the future, blending Trumpism with dynamism for future electoral success. Modern presidential elections rarely find these kinds of vice presidential candidates as they may even outshine the nominee, but the closest you get are arguably Paul Ryan in 2012, possibly Richard Nixon in 1952, or the premise of Stacey Abrams in 2020. In 2020, I think Trump really only has one pick at this level.
Nikki Haley: Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is primed to be a major leader in the Republican Party. She’s popular within the GOP, more culturally moderate (in 2015, then-governor Haley signed legislation removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capital grounds), and has a swath of experience on the state and federal level. She also served as the Trump Administration’s Ambassador to the United Nations until the end of 2018 (and was confirmed by a 96-4 vote in the Senate, becoming the first Indian American to hold a cabinet-level job), and her resignation fueled speculation about her plans for 2020 and beyond. She’s currently looking to live the high life in a cushy private sector job (potentially as a soon-to-be member of Boeing’s board of directors), but it’s almost certainly not the last we’ve seen of her as a major political figure on the right. It remains to be seen if she’s waiting Trump’s administration out. She’s maintained some separation from the president, insisting that women who have accused him of sexual assault “should be heard”, distanced herself from Trump’s Muslim ban, and her resignation as UN Ambassador came a bit abruptly, surprising Congressional Republicans. Nonetheless, Haley is the cream of the crop from an electability perspective – she’s popular with establishment Republicans, could shore up Trump’s support with a broader collection of voters (I do not mean to tokenize her, but being a woman of color is a significant factor in mending an administration that has had issues with both women and minority voters), would provide a sense of normalization for the chaotic Trump White House, and would be set up to carry the torch for her own version of the party post-Trump.
VP Junior Varsity
This is about the level I’d give the top tier of Trump’s options back in 2016, and the typical VP choices for most presidential candidates. These tend to be sitting senators or high-profile representatives or governors with lengthy records. These folks would play to a specific element (be it foreign policy experience or military experience, for example) more so than to the party or nation at large, much like Mike Pence currently does. Think: Joe Biden in 2008, probably Paul Ryan in 2012, Tim Kaine in 2016, Joe Lieberman in 2000, and Al Gore in 1992.
Lindsey Graham: South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has had one of the largest about-faces in the Trump era, moving from an outspoken critic of Trump in 2015-2016, to one of his staunchest defenders in the Senate. Maybe he just came to his senses about the direction of the party and the base, or maybe he wants more than the Senate in the near future… Secretary of Defense? To run for president again after Trump is done? Graham’s role on the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees primes him as a kind of “Republican Joe Biden” – he’d be a run-of-the-mill VP pick, and is clearly looking to curry favor with the base, with Trump, or with both.
Susana Martinez: A two-term governor of New Mexico up until the start of this year, Martinez could be a key ally to Trump in his struggle to maintain support in the Southwest. She’s got a record as a prosecutor that might be appealing to Trump’s law and order instincts, and she was the first female Hispanic governor in the United States, lending him some credibility in his focus on the southern border. Though there was a strained relationship on immigration and Trump’s rhetoric between the two of them for some time, they’ve come around to each other. This might not be enough to convince Trump or even establishment Republicans that she is worth a place on the ticket, though. Martinez’s job approval rapidly tanked to the bottom five governors in the nation by 2018 and the benefits to her inclusion seem marginal for Trump at best.
Scott Walker: Similar to Martinez, Walker was a two-term governor (until 2019) of a state in a geographically-important region for Trump. In Walker’s case, that state was Wisconsin. Also like Martinez, Walker was relatively unpopular towards the end of his gubernatorial career, and he lost reelection to a third term in 2018 to the Democratic challenger (he was also subject to a recall election in 2012 during his first term, and is the only governor in US history to survive a recall). Walker is a fairly conventional Republican, and initially tried to point the party away from Trump during the 2016 Republican primary (in which he also briefly ran), but other than his geographic background (and even then, as his failed reelection may indicate, he’s not strong there), there’s not a lot that would make him an interesting or good choice to replace fellow Midwesterner Mike Pence.
Sarah Palin: Previously, Sarah Palin would have fallen into a very different category here (specifically, our last). But now, leading up to 2020, she would be an almost square pick for Trump. Her choice (and surge in popularity amongst the Republican base) in 2008 portended much of what would come to the Republican Party over the course of Obama’s presidency, and her populist, anti-”swamp” message, as well as the fact that she is (once again, I am not trying to tokenize – even if Trump might be, I am just making a point that Trump is hemorrhaging female voters relative to his Republican compatriots) a woman of high national profile could make her a natural fit. She’s very Trump-brand and Trump-style in that what she lacks in experience or normality, she makes up for with a specific popularity and the ability to energize the party’s base.
Here’s the lower-level, more boring choices that would be fairly low-profile, but could have value in playing to a particular geographic area (which may very well be a winning strategy). They’re generally more recent entrees into politics who lack much time in the spotlight but who represent the future of the party rather than the more traditionalist long-timers in the JV league above and are relatively green senators, governors, or House members. Think Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 (this is also arguably a “Wild Card” choice as she was the first woman ever to be nominated as a vice presidential candidate), Spiro Agnew in 1968, and arguably Mike Pence in 2016.
Shelley Moore Capito: The junior Senator from West Virginia, Capito has the potential to become a more compassionate version of Mike Pence – she would be a fairly non-controversial VP pick, even if she’s more pro-choice than might be expected of Republican orthodoxy and once did say that Trump should “reexamine his candidacy” at the height of the heat of the Access Hollywood tape circulation in the 2016 election. However, if you look at the list of names echoing similar sentiments, you’ll find a number of people who have since come around to him anyway. Capito is more entrenched in the Republican Party than you might expect, and Trump does seem to love West Virginia, but this pick would be little more than a more compassionate swap for Mike Pence, with little real benefit other than to put Capito in the spotlight for future aspirations.
Tom Cotton: Fresh and young, Tom Cotton was once touted as an aspiring option for Republicans to reconcile their party with establishment ideals and with Trumpism. Of course, that was in October of 2016, when Donald Trump’s defeat seemed all-but-certain, and the prevailing theory was that Republicans were going to be licking some serious wounds as they grappled with their identity in the Clinton era. Now, Tom Cotton’s comments on the United States’ “under-incarceration problem”, tough stance towards China, and staunch pro-Israel views feel very much in line with Trump’s ideology and he is perhaps even more well suited to be a slightly-more-establishment Trump successor. A veteran, Cotton has been perennially floated as Trump’s Secretary of Defense, both in 2016 and after James Mattis’ resignation in 2018, and is probably the best example of the next generation waiting in Trump’s stead to carry on his general ideology. If the GOP wanted to elevate one of its own for 2020 and stay firmly within the lines Trump has set for the party (as opposed to Haley, who would fall more in line with Bush-era Republican ideology), Cotton is a no-brainer. Were it not for the fact he only joined the Senate in 2015, I would bump him up to the JV league.
Kelly Ayotte: The former New Hampshire Senator narrowly lost reelection (by only 1,017 votes) in 2016 and though New Hampshire is only a tiny swing state (and one she lost in, so… like Scott Walker above, take it with a grain of salt), she’d be a strong choice to counter the Democrat’s increasing strength in suburbia. She was once profiled as an “emerging force” after her landslide Senate win in 2010, and has a mindset not dissimilar to a Romney Republican (she was, in fact, considered as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney in 2012). However, this puts her a tad out of touch with Trumpism, and though establishment Republicans would probably still see her as a rising potential star, her loss in 2016 likely cut that short.
Marsha Blackburn: Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn took office in January 2019, taking Trump-critical Senator Bob Corker’s seat (he retired, and Blackburn bested Democrat Phil Bredesen to take his seat). Having previously served as the Representative for Tennessee’s 7th District for eight terms, Blackburn was a supporter of the birther bill, was vice chair of Trump’s presidential transition team, and then nominated Donald Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize. So… while she may not be a bold choice, she’s a distinctly Trump-oriented choice. She also holds the distinction of being the only person Taylor Swift has ever asked people not to vote for. So… if Trump wants to cozy up with his pal Kanye, there’s some gas to pour on this brewing feud.
Cory Gardner: And then there’s Colorado’s junior Senator Cory Gardner, who has the distinction of being the most disproportionately Trump-voting Senator relative to the lean of his state.4The current data at the time of posting has brand-new Florida Senator Rick Scott beating out Gardner, but because there are only ten votes accumulated for Scott, this is not statistically significant and is not representative of his more likely long-term average. In second place there just behind him in most-disproportionate Trump support? Dean Heller of Nevada, who was the only incumbent Republican senator to lose reelection in 2018. Gardner is up for reelection in 2020, and has been profiled as the “most vulnerable Republican Senator”. He ascended in the Republican leadership rapidly given his relatively short career (he was a two-term Congressman from the eastern most district of Colorado before running for Senate) but remains a young face in the Senate, and much like Senator Tom Cotton, provides a mould for Republicanism one generation below Trump. Picking Gardner would almost certainly cost Republicans his Senate seat, but would also keep this potential rising Republican star on the forefront of the party for future elections (be it presidential or gubernatorial). Picking Gardner is more to his benefit than to Trump’s, as it would allow him (and the Republican Party) to save face in a swing state that’s moving away from them and probably save his long-term prospects. Still, he’s a bit green, and Trump making a vague appeal to Western states seems unlike him.
VP Wild Card
These are the last-ditch, Game Change candidates. These would be out of the box, come from the sidelines, and would be – in that way – incredibly Trumpy. It’s a high risk, high reward situation, and it might destroy the campaign or completely wipe out the competition. Think: Sarah Palin in 2008 (but not now), or Ted Cruz picking Carly Fiorina despite not being the presumptive nominee in 2016.
Dan Crenshaw: Crenshaw, who made waves recently on Saturday Night Live and for meeting Chris Evans and showing him his Captain America-styled glass eye has received a lot of attention this year for a first term congressman. His distinguished military service and flirtations with media attention have made him a likable rising star for the Republican Party, which is amplified by how distinctly Trumpian he is. Of the members of the current House (of which there are 435), he is the most disproportionately in line with Trump in his votes relative to the partisan lean of his district.5Even still, he’s not quite at Gardner levels… but this is mostly a reflection of Gardner represents a state (Colorado) that swung against Trump by five points, whereas Crenshaw represents a district that swung for Trump by about 9%. This, once again, begs the question – what on earth is Cory Gardner thinking? I think all of this makes him somewhat unique in the Republican Party. He’s sort of untouchable but holds viewpoints very much in line with Trump’s (Crenshaw supports building the wall, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, and so forth). This has lead some to champion him as the “future of the GOP”, for once a distinction that I think actually makes sense. Crenshaw can funnel a dash of his untouchable populism, with spot-on Trump policies, without being weighed down by the fact that he comes across as opportunistic (as Cotton and Gardner might) or as, well… like Trump. He doesn’t have to deal with accusations of a history of sexual assault, or of having no military experience, or having been married several times… he’s a distinctly Trump-like Republican in a more affable package. The reason he’s still a wild car is because he is about as green as they come: his sole government experience is as a Congressman for the last few months. And while he’s received quite a bit of attention, he has probably not received serious vetting or consideration as to what his future might hold. However, if you’re looking for energy, for a reconciliation of likability and Trumpism, and for a name people will remember when the Republican Party is looking for a new generation of leaders – Dan Crenshaw should turn some heads.
Joe Manchin: Now here’s a real wild card. Senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin, is a fan of coal, gun rights, and building the wall; he is not a fan of sanctuary cities, gay marriage, or abortion. On the surface, he’d fit right into modern Trump-Republican orthodoxy. So why’s he a wild card at all? Well there’s just one problem… Manchin’s currently a Democrat. Sure, he votes with Trump 58.5% of the time, more than any other Democratic Senator, and sure, he’s publicly said that he regrets voting for Hillary Clinton and may support Donald Trump’s reelection in 2020, but – wait, no yeah, you read that correctly. Maybe it’s not so crazy. The current governor of West Virginia, Jim Justice, also used to be a Democrat and (seemingly to the surprise of everyone else other than Trump, considering it happened at Trump’s own rally) declared himself now a Republican back in 2017. Manchin may or may not be far behind, but even if he’s not, what better way to make a wave and really stick it to the Democrats than for Trump to make this offer? This markets Trump as bipartisan while also somehow playing to his base, simultaneously making Democrats look like they’re losing support (which turns the table on the popular perception), and costs them another seat in the Senate. This would be a major blow to Democrats in the heat of their own primary, has a clear precedent, and totally shakes up the race. Hell, I’ve actually convinced myself just thinking and writing about this, that this might be Trump’s best option overall (including just keeping Pence around).