Most of the frontrunners for the position don’t really have much going on at the moment. Newt Gingrich has been touring colleges, speaking to Fox News about touring colleges, and writing Civil War fan fiction for a decade and a half. Chris Christie is the unpopular lame duck governor of a state that hates him—he filled out the paperwork just to alleviate his crushing boredom. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s only post-DIA hobby seems to be writing letters to the editor about how his old bosses didn’t listen to him enough.
Mike Pence’s allies in both Indiana and Washington have been aggressively pushing their man as Trump’s only logical choice, but unlike his adversaries, he has a bit more going on. He’s not particularly popular, especially after a rough first term in which he alienated everyone in the state at one time or another, but he is running for reelection and is still seen by people in the national party as a potential presidential candidate. And the conventional thinking among 2020 presidential candidates at the moment is to get close—but not too close—to Trump. But Pence, by signaling a willingness to join the ticket, is taking a different tack.
That’s partly because of the whole “up for reelection” thing. Pence’s first term in office was rough, and sources close to Pence told the National Review that Pence “believes a spot on the national ticket could simultaneously lift him out of a tough reelection campaign in Indiana and make him a top prospect for the Republican nomination in 2020 or 2024.” Politico was even more explicit: “Ten years ago, Mike Pence would have never done this. Five years ago. But because his stock with conservatives is so low right now, this may be his only chance to be a national figure. And being Trump’s running mate, your chances of being successful are slim to none, and slim is on his way to a second trip to the buffet line.”
Pence is both desperate enough to risk joining Trump and needs him to catapult back into the good graces of the Republican Party’s rank-and-file. Joining Trump kills two birds with one stone. Pence’s goal is to be a national candidate and to do that he would both have to not lose his reelection campaign and endear himself to voters across the country. And, while many other Republicans are bracing for a fall in November, Pence is making a bet that Trump’s voters will still be there in 2020 and that they’ll remember who was loyal to their candidate and who was not.