August 2, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Conflict with Trump should be the least of Pence’s worries

History is against him. 

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Mike Pence has the slimmest of chances of winning the Republican nomination, but that slimmest of chances is the only one that the former vice president has. He doesn’t really have a choice. If he’s going to run, he must do it now. After this cycle, everyone will stick a fork in him.  

But Pence is not going to win, even if by some miracle he gets through the threshing machine that is Donald Trump. Former vice presidents, as well as sitting vice presidents, usually lose. Of the 15 vice presidents who became president, eight did so by succession, not election. Of the 15 vice presidents who became president, five were elected. Yes, five. 

Former vice presidents, as well as sitting vice presidents, usually lose. Indeed, of the 15 vice presidents who became president, eight did so by succession, not election. Of all vice presidents to become president, four were elected.

Pence’s campaign has lately been more aggressive. His allies have called Trump “an apologist for thugs and dictators.” That inspired the Post to run a piece on the most famous moment when a vice president (in this case, Thomas Jefferson) went to war with a president (John Adams). 

After Trump’s third indictment last night, on charges related to his paramilitary takeover of the US government, Pence said: “Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: Anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be president of the United States.”

Even so, Pence “has not said exactly how far he will go to prevent a second Trump turn,” the Times reported, “and whether those efforts would include testifying in court as a key witness for the prosecution. So far, he has stopped short of a broad-based condemnation.”

But conflict with Trump should be the least of Pence’s worries.

The last time a sitting vice president won the White House was George HW Bush in 1988. He secured the Republican nomination while simultaneously serving under Ronald Reagan. Success was fleeting, though. Four years later, he lost a three-way race to Bill Clinton in 1992.

There is no equivalent in living memory, yet George HW Bush’s “success” seems to represent the conventional wisdom such that everyone seems to believe that being vice president is the step toward being president. Bush’s “success,” however, was probably a fluke in our history. That everyone believes the CV doesn’t make it less fluky. 

If we go back a century, we can see that the best chance of a vice president becoming president was the death of the president in office. Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson ascended, respectively, after William McKinley, Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy died. Only Theodore Roosevelt ran for and won reelection to two full terms. Coolidge, Truman and Johnson decided against running for second terms.


Also going back a century, we can see that vice presidents who did not benefit from the line of succession were doomed. Sitting Vice President Richard Nixon lost to John Kennedy in 1960. Sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey lost to (by then former Vice President) Richard Nixon in 1968. Former Vice President Walter Mondale lost to Reagan in 1984. Sitting Vice President Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in 2000. 

Nixon is the exception to this, but not by that much. Nixon faced doom in 1960, then defied it in 1968, then faced it again later. (He resigned in 1974 in the knowledge that his party was ready to help remove him.) His vice president, President Gerald Ford, lost his bid for a full term to Jimmy Carter in 1976. “Exception” should be reserved for Joe Biden.

You could say that Al Gore was robbed of his chance at being president. (The Supreme Court decided that election, not the people.) But if we take a broad look at history, we can see that Gore’s fate was in at least keeping with the fates of most of the last century’s vice presidents. 

Which brings me back to Pence. 

He must do more than defeat a criminal former president, which itself is already looking impossible. Pence must do what only Nixon and Biden have done. In the last 100 years, they were the only former vice presidents to win the presidency after a gap (Biden, after Trump’s one term; Nixon, after Johnson’s one and a half terms. Remember, Bush is the only sitting vice president to win the presidency during that time.)

Nixon and Biden are the only former vice presidents to make themselves relevant after the opposing party collapsed into crisis (the Democrats cracked up under Johnson, the Republicans cracked up under Trump). Pence is a lot of things, but the beneficiary of the opposing party’s crackup isn’t one of them. Neither is “relevant.” 


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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