What other candidates can learn from Mike Pence's failed presidential campaign

The former vice president left the contest on Saturday in a surprise announcement.

Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images, Getty Images (4)
Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images, Getty Images (4)

Former Vice President Mike Pence is now the first high-profile candidate to announce that he would no longer be seeking the Republican nomination for president.

“We always knew this would be an uphill battle, but I have no regrets,” Pence announced at a convention of Jewish Republicans in Nevada on Saturday. The 64-year-old did not discuss future political plans. Nor did he endorse another candidate.

His decision comes just days before the final primary debate, which will be held on Nov. 8. In both state and local polls, former President Donald Trump — in whose administration Pence served — continues to hold a commanding lead; despite Pence’s departure, more than a half-dozen rivals remain in the running.

Yahoo News spoke to several top Republican strategists about what Pence’s withdrawal means for the GOP field — and what other candidates can learn.

Recommended reading

He hit his ceiling

Donald Trump and Mike Pence stand together at a podium.
Then-President Donald Trump and Pence at a campaign rally in 2019 in Sunrise, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A socially conservative figure of deep Christian faith, Pence was governor of Indiana when Trump selected him as his vice president in 2016, largely to help him shore up his support among evangelical voters.

The low and high points of his tenure followed each other closely: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob falsely convinced that the 2020 election had been stolen rampaged through the U.S. Capitol, some shouting that they would hang Pence before he could certify the election, as was his constitutional duty.

Despite the astonishing scene, Pence held his ground and, after Jan. 6, served as the public face of the outgoing administration. It was he, not Trump, who attended Joe Biden’s inauguration two weeks after the riot. And he has argued that Trump’s refusal to accept his 2020 defeat, and the ensuing Jan. 6 riot, makes him unfit to sit in the Oval Office again.

Was that résumé enough to power a successful presidential run?

No, says Republican strategist Liz Mair.

“Mike Pence is the classic definition of a politician who has failed upwards, and unfortunately for him, his hard ceiling seems to have finally materialized,” she told Yahoo News. “He got some credit for demonstrating some principles on Jan. 6, but all of this just left him with a teeny-tiny market to cater to and it just wasn’t a viable candidacy as such.”

Recommended reading

The party of Reagan is now the party of Trump

Trump holds up both fists while onstage at a rally.
Trump at a rally in Sioux City, Iowa, on Oct. 29. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)

Staunchly opposed to abortion and steadfastly committed to funding the war in Ukraine, Pence was a Republican in the Reaganite mold. But if that mold had grown weak over the years, Trump shattered it entirely, refashioning the GOP entirely in his image.

Many conservatives believe there is no coming back from the populism and isolationism that Trump unleashed, among other forces.

“Mike Pence is an ideal avatar for the Republican Party circa 2012,” Republican strategist and lobbyist Liam Donovan told Yahoo News. “The rise of Trump was an indication that these conventional strengths have their limitations, and that the electorate is looking for something else entirely.”

Recommended reading

Beware of the Trump trap

Supporters of Trump sitting at a rally listen to him speak.
Supporters of Trump listen as he speaks during the campaign rally in Sioux City. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)

Pence faced the same challenge that hounds every other candidate but Trump himself: How do you run against Trump without alienating more than a third of the Republican base, which remains more loyal to him than to the GOP?

“He was caught between a rock and a hard place: not Trumpy enough for the Trumpies, and too Trumpy for the people who wanted to move on from Trump,” says veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

Although many establishment conservatives celebrated Pence for refusing to endorse Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, his actions on and after Jan. 6 earned him enmity from the GOP base — a warning to any other candidate who seeks to directly cross Trump, either on the Capitol riot or on other charged issues.

“I always kind of knew that his path for getting the Republican nomination didn’t exist because of that decision,” Sarah Matthews, who worked in the Trump White House and later testified before the Jan. 6 congressional panel, told Yahoo News.

In other words, tread lightly — or face Pence’s fate.

Recommended reading

Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate

Nikki Haley stands at a pair of microphones.
Nikki Haley speaks as she registers for the South Carolina 2024 presidential primary ballot at the South Carolina State House in Columbia on Monday. (Sam Wolfe/Reuters)

By this point, Republicans were hoping that a single clear alternative to Trump would emerge, the way Democrats united around Biden in 2020 in order to avoid a messy, damaging primary.

So far, they’ve had no luck. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has run a hard-edged campaign that appears to have alienated both Trump loyalists and Republican moderates. Lately, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has begun assuming the role of the de facto Trump alternative, but with DeSantis still in the race, she has very little time to break through before voting starts in Iowa and New Hampshire early next year.

Then there are lower-polling candidates who have enough money to stay in the race, at least for now: former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Donors are “lighting cash on fire” by funding candidacies that have no hope of victory and only ultimately help Trump, Matthews believes. But she hopes that Pence’s departure is the beginning of a better-late-than-never consolidation that manages to stop Trump’s momentum.

“The field is too big and Trump’s lead is too large,” Matthews told Yahoo News, urging fellow anti-Trump conservatives to get behind Haley.

Recommended reading