Five days before Americans headed to the polls in 2008, a sizable portion of the electorate could explain Sarah Palin’s proximity to Russia, name at least one of her kids (along with future son-in-law Levi Johnston), and do a passable impression of her. Today, even Americans who are following the election might be sketchy on which state Mike Pence can see from his house (Indiana) and whether he even has kids (he has a son and two daughters, each with a pleasant, unremarkable name).
The lack of familiarity with the current Republican vice-presidential nominee is understandable. If Pence and Donald Trump were Westworld hosts, the governor would have his emotional affect switched off, while the mogul would be way off his loop, rampaging through the park owing to some mysterious computer virus. Pence will never inspire tabloid covers, viral SNL sketches, or made-for-HBO movies. However, Americans should know far more about him than Palin, because he’s closer to the presidency than she ever was.
It is very unlikely that Pence will become president (especially with Hillary Clinton still in the lead, despite the polls tightening). But there are several scenarios that could lead to Pence running the country for the next four years (aside from the one terrible way vice-presidents usually assume the office).
A Tie in the Electoral College, Followed by a Tie in the House
It’s mathematically possible (though improbable) that neither Clinton nor Trump will secure the 270 electoral votes required to win the presidency. In that case, the House would choose the president, with each state delegation getting one vote. In the case of a 25-25 tie, the election would go to the Senate, and, as Time explains, Pence or Democratic VP nominee Tim Kaine would assume the presidency:
What happens in the case of a second presidential tie? According to the 12th Amendment, “if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President.” That was later changed to the Vice President-Elect and to January 20 in the 20th Amendment.
The Vice President-Elect is chosen by the Senate in a separate process from the House, according to Amy Bunk, an attorney from the National Archives, which administers the Electoral College. If the Senate, as predicted by most observers right now, goes Democratic, then Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine would become president. If Republicans maintain control of the Upper Chamber, then Indiana Gov. Mike Pence will be the 45th president. If the Senate also deadlocks — the unlikeliest of unlikely scenarios — then the presidency would go to the next person in line, the Speaker of the House, currently Paul Ryan.
Trump Is Impeached
Republicans are already talking about impeaching President Hillary Clinton, but as New York’s Ed Kilgore notes, “Clinton is not the candidate facing an actual court trial shortly after Election Day.” Trump’s trial for allegedly defrauding students at Trump University is set to begin on November 28. Trump has also been accused in a civil suit of raping a 13-year-old girl, and a hearing is set for December 16. Plus, the FBI is reportedly probing Trump’s ties to Russia.
Then there are Trump’s potential actions as president. Politico noted back in April, before Trump won the nomination, that some were discussing the possibility that he wouldn’t remain in office for long:
“Impeachment” is already on the lips of pundits, newspaper editorials, constitutional scholars, and even a few members of Congress. From the right, Washington attorney Bruce Fein puts the odds at 50/50 that a President Trump commits impeachable offenses as president. Liberal Florida Rep. Alan Grayson says Trump’s insistence on building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, if concrete was poured despite Congress’s opposition, could lead down a path toward impeachment. Even the mainstream Republican head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently tossed out the I-word when discussing the civilian backlash if Trump’s trade war with China led to higher prices on everyday items sold at WalMart and Target. On his radio show last month, Rush Limbaugh even put a very brisk timeline on it: “They’ll be talking impeachment on day two, after the first Trump executive order,” he said.
President Trump Lets Pence Run the Country
From the start of his campaign, there have been rumors that Trump never expected his candidacy to go this far, and isn’t all that interested in being president. Politico came up with a long list of reasons why he’d hate doing the job; for instance, he wouldn’t be able to hire and fire people on a whim, and the court would challenge his executive orders. That theory was bolstered by a report in July that Donald Trump Jr. reached out to a John Kasich adviser to gauge the Ohio governor’s interest in joining the ticket. Per The New York Times Magazine:
Did he have any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history?
When Kasich’s adviser asked how this would be the case, Donald Jr. explained that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.
Then what, the adviser asked, would Trump be in charge of?
“Making America great again” was the casual reply.
We don’t know what Trump offered Pence (and the Trump campaign denies the Kasich report), but Pence has said that he would model his vice-presidency after Dick Cheney’s. “I frankly hold Dick Cheney in really high regard in his role as vice president and as an American,” Pence told ABC News’s Martha Raddatz. He added that he hoped to be a “very active vice president” and to use his experience on Capitol Hill to advance Trump’s vision.
“I would hope that my relationships over my 12 years in Congress and my four years here as governor of Indiana would help carry Donald Trump’s vision to make America great again to people who would be crafting the legislation to put that into practice,” he said.
In the wake of grab-’em-by-the-pussy-gate, some Republicans began openly dreaming of a Pence presidency. A Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Scott Gant and Bruce Peabody described how Trump could abdicate before November 8:
Mr. Trump could publicly declare that although he will remain the Republican nominee he will resign immediately after taking his oath of office on Inauguration Day, leaving his more-popular running mate, Mike Pence, to succeed him as president.
In this way, Republicans can effectively replace Mr. Trump at the top of the ticket, without having to endure the logistical and legal turmoil of formally nominating a new standard-bearer less than a month before Election Day.
In early October, a poll found Pence is the front-runner for the 2020 GOP nomination, assuming Trump does not run. Around the same time, Senator Ben Sasse announced that he plans to write in Mike Pence’s name for president in the 2016 election.
So what would President Pence, or a very powerful Vice-President Pence, do for America? Here’s a thumbnail sketch.
Curtail LGBT Rights
While Trump is fairly liberal on gay rights, for a Republican, Pence is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Before he was selected as Trump’s running mate, Pence was best known nationally for signing a law that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to LGBT customers on religious grounds. Following a national backlash, Pence signed an amendment that said no “provider … may deny service to anyone on basis of sexual orientation, race, religion or disability.”
Throughout his career, Pence has passionately opposed expanding gay rights. In 2006 he told colleagues in the House that he supported a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, explaining, “Societal collapse was always brought about following an advent of the deterioration of marriage and family.”
In 2007, he voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, and he opposed the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” because he didn’t want the military to become “a backdrop for social experimentation.” Pence advocated for conversion therapy during his first successful run for Congress in 2000, and he has never publicly reversed that stance.
Restrict Reproductive Rights
While Trump’s views on reproductive rights have shifted even during the campaign, Pence has been a leader in the fight against abortion for years. He sponsored the first House bill to defund Planned Parenthood in 2007, and continued pushing similar legislation until it passed in 2011. He co-sponsored the Protect Life Act, which would have prohibited women from buying insurance plans that cover abortion under the Affordable Care Act, and allowed hospitals to refuse to perform abortions even in situations where the mother’s life was at risk.
Indiana has some of the harshest abortion laws in the country, and as governor, Pence made them even stricter. In March, he signed a bill into law that makes it illegal for women to have an abortion because their fetus has a disability, like Down syndrome. The bill also requires aborted fetuses to be buried or cremated.
On the campaign trail, Pence predicted that Roe v. Wade will be overturned if Trump is elected president. “I’m pro-life and I don’t apologize for it,” he said. “We’ll see Roe vs. Wade consigned to the ash heap of history where it belongs.”
Reject Complaints About Institutional Racism
When asked in September how he would unite the country, Pence brought up the protests over the shooting of black men by police. “Donald Trump and I believe there’s been far too much of this talk of institutional bias or racism within law enforcement. That police officers are human beings. In difficult and life threatening situations, mistakes are made and people have to be held to strict account,” Pence said. He added, “We ought to set aside this talk about institutional racism and institutional bias.”
Pence addressed the issue again at the vice-presidential debate, saying, “Enough of this seeking every opportunity to demean law enforcement broadly by making the accusation that implicit bias every time tragedy occurs.”
Ignore Climate Change
Pence has been a passionate climate-change denier over the years, and on his watch, Indiana joined a lawsuit against the Obama administration over the Clean Power Plan. Pence said that even if the rule was upheld, Indiana may refuse to comply with federal restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions.
The governor holds a number of other positions that are out of step with modern science, as Fortune notes. He once claimed in an op-ed that “smoking doesn’t kill,” he said embryonic-stem-cell research is “obsolete,” which is not true, and it’s unclear if he believes in evolution.
Work With Paul Ryan
Trump has clashed many times with Ryan on the campaign trail, and his war against the Speaker has deep roots in the alt-right. Pence, on the other hand, would almost certainly work with the House leadership of his own party.
As National Review notes, Pence and Ryan have a cozy relationship — though it’s been tested by the campaign:
He and Pence served together in the House and remain so close that Pence asked the speaker to introduce him at the Republican convention. When Trump initially declined to endorse Ryan in his August primary, Pence made a rare public break with his running mate, telling Fox News, “I believe we need Paul Ryan in leadership in the Congress of the United States.” But the prolonged feud between Trump and Ryan has tested Pence’s loyalties. He was vexed by Ryan’s decision to stop advocating for Trump after the Access Hollywood tape, while Trump himself denounced Ryan as “our very weak and ineffective leader” and suggested he should lose the speakership.
Pence declined to say whether he thinks Ryan should be elected Speaker three times in an interview with National Review, but later he said Ryan has his support. “We are so grateful for Paul Ryan’s support for this ticket,” Pence told CNN. “Paul Ryan is a personal friend. My respect for Paul Ryan is boundless and I support his re-election to Congress, and I support his re-election as speaker of the House.”
Finally, there’s one very important way that a Pence administration would differ from a Trump administration. While President Pence would be far more harsh on certain issues, he probably wouldn’t undermine the foundations of American democracy.