For the many, many Americans who desperately wish this endless and sometimes terrifying election cycle would just end already, here’s some upsetting news: Polling is already under way for 2020. The indefatigable folks at Politico, in conjunction with their Morning Consult polling partners, have a survey out today showing Mike Pence as the front-runner for the 2020 GOP nomination in the event that he and Donald Trump lose on November 8. This complements another Politico survey of its GOP “insiders” in battleground states indicating that many of them wish Pence were at the top of the ticket right now.
Let’s say Pence, who right now is riding a wave of acclaim for a debate performance that many Republicans and pundits found impressive, emerges from his ticket’s defeat with his own reputation enhanced and is deemed the 2020 front-runner by the cognoscenti and crazy-early polls. How likely is it that he can actually win the nomination?
By my quick count, there have been since World War II five defeated vice-presidential nominees who subsequently ran for president (without having been actual vice-presidents earlier, like Fritz Mondale and Dan Quayle): Henry Cabot Lodge, Ed Muskie, Bob Dole, Joe Lieberman, and John Edwards. Dole (Ford’s running mate in 1976) is the only one who won a presidential nomination, and that was 20 years later; in his first presidential run in 1980, he withdrew after drawing one percent in New Hampshire. Dole also lost a nomination contest in 1988. You cannot say his ’76 gig served as a springboard to much of anything. The most recent examples of former would-be veeps going for the brass ring are instructive, too: Lieberman very briefly led early 2004 polls, but when actual voting began he got drubbed. In 2008, John Edwards made a credible run after basically living in Iowa for four years, but departed from the race early, barely ahead of the scandal that destroyed his political career.
As a footnote, one recently failed veep nominee momentarily looked to be a political supernova but then faded into self-parody: Sarah Palin, who has never come closer than the rumor mill to an actual presidential run and couldn’t even wrangle a speaking gig at Donald Trump’s convention, despite endorsing him early.
The precedents, therefore, are not great for Pence, and Lord knows he’s going to have competition in 2020 from other Republicans feeding on the belief that they should have won this time around. Aside from likely retreads Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich (second, third, and fourth in the Politico/Morning Consult survey), the Man With the Golden Résumé, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, identified practically from childhood as a potential president, is spending an almost unseemly four days in Iowa beginning this weekend, campaigning with candidates who don’t really need the help. And looming above the entire field is another failed vice-presidential nominee who really did not suffer much from losing: House Speaker Paul Ryan, who will likely be regarded as the titular head of the GOP if Trump loses, and maybe even if he wins.
So, if you are an ambitious young Republican operative, you might want to wait a while before leaping aboard the Pence 2020 bandwagon.
As a final cautionary note, very early polls for presidential nominations don’t have a terribly good predictive record unless they involve obvious and overwhelming favorites. There’s one successful vice-presidential nominee who sure looked to be a lock for his party’s presidential nomination. Indeed, a poll of delegates at his party’s convention when he was renominated for veep named him the clear front-runner for the next time around, and he was still well ahead in a national Gallup poll taken months later.
That would be Spiro T. Agnew, who wound up resigning in disgrace after the Feds found out he had been accepting brown-paper bags full of cash from Maryland road contractors for years.
I’m by no means suggesting Mike Pence has anything that lurid in his past or future. He’s doing very, very well for a pol who looked to be in serious danger of losing a gubernatorial reelection in a red state just ten weeks ago. But, as we all know from this year’s experience, presidential election cycles are very long and very unpredictable. And as Jeb! Bush can tell you, being the early front-runner ain’t all that.