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Why it doesn’t matter that Mike Pence dropped out of the GOP primary

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(NEW YORK) — No offense to former Texas Rep. Will Hurd and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, but on Saturday, former Vice President Mike Pence became the first big name to drop out of the 2024 presidential race. It’s big news because of Pence’s stature within the party, but it wasn’t necessarily a surprise: Thanks to his low polling and fundraising totals, some on the 538 team were predicting this as long ago as July. But if you’re expecting this to be the event that finally shakes up the Republican primary, think again: Pence’s withdrawal isn’t likely to give a meaningful boost to any of his fellow anti-Trump candidates.

Simply put, Pence’s campaign never got going. Thanks largely to his high profile, he started the year polling in third place with 9 percent support, according to 538’s average of national primary polls. But it all went downhill from there: By the time he actually entered the race on June 7 (his birthday!), he was down to 5 percent, and on Saturday when he dropped out, he was sitting in fifth place at 4 percent.

Normally, former vice presidents make for strong presidential contenders. Before Pence, six of the last seven former vice presidents who ran for president successfully captured their party’s nomination (Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and Joe Biden). But as my colleague Geoffrey Skelley noted when Pence jumped into the race, Pence’s polling at the time was most similar to the one who didn’t get his party’s nomination: fellow Hoosier Dan Quayle. Bush’s vice president sought the White House in the 2000 election, but like Pence, he dropped out of the primary in the fall before the election year.

Pence’s main problem was that he had no base within the GOP. Of course, Pence served in the administration of former President Donald Trump, but he damaged his relationship with the Trump wing of the party on Jan. 6, 2021, when he refused to oppose the certification of the 2020 election. According to Civiqs polling, his net favorability rating among Republicans dropped from +76 percentage points on that day to +44 points just one week later. Still, his average net favorability numbers remained positive through the middle of this year — but they took hit after hit over the summer as Pence ratcheted up his criticism of Trump. In August, after Trump’s indictments for attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election shone a spotlight on Pence’s opposition to Trump, his numbers dipped underwater. According to 538’s average, as of Friday, 45 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable opinion of Pence, and 43 percent had a favorable one.

At this point, Pence’s support was probably mostly coming from the minority of the party that would like to move on from Trump and Trumpism. Ergo, his withdrawal from the race may seem like good news for like-minded candidates such as former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. But Haley et al. probably won’t experience a significant spike in the polls as a result of this.

In late September, WPA Intelligence and FairVote conducted a unique ranked-choice voting poll of the GOP primary that asked likely Republican voters not only who their first choice for president was, but also who their second, third, fourth, etc. choices were. And among voters who ranked Pence first, there was no consensus second choice. Twenty percent said their second choice was South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, 19 percent said Haley, 18 percent said businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, 15 percent said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 14 percent said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and 9 percent said Trump.

That’s just one poll, but it suggests that Pence’s support will flow relatively uniformly to all the other top-tier candidates, which would not help, say, Haley strengthen her argument that she is the candidate best positioned to defeat Trump. But of course, even if that poll is wrong and Pence’s support flows overwhelmingly to one alternative candidate, that wouldn’t significantly alter the trajectory of the race. Remember, Pence was polling at just 4 percent nationwide. At best, that would take Haley from 8 percent to 12 percent — not nothing, but still leagues behind Trump, who sits at 57 percent. No matter how much the anti-Trump vote coalesces, he will probably still win the Republican nomination unless someone else can figure out how to win some of that pro-Trump vote too.

 

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