Former Vice President Mike Pence’s abrupt decision over the weekend to end his presidential campaign is narrowing the 2024 Republican presidential field as his top rivals look to consolidate support for their campaigns to try and compete with Donald Trump, who remains the heavy favorite.
With less than three months to go before the Iowa caucuses, Republican voters eager to see a new standard bearer in 2024 have yet to rally around a single candidate that just might be able to deny Trump the party’s presidential nomination. But even with Pence out of the race, Republican strategists say that his supporters don’t have a clear second choice to turn to.
“It’s kind of difficult to know which of these candidates has the most to gain here,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster. “Whoever can appeal to the traditional conservative voters is more likely to get what support he had, but I’m not sure there’s one clear choice there.”
For now, the clearest choices might just be former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are running ahead of the rest of the pack in most public polls, though far behind Trump. Speaking to reporters on Monday after signing paperwork to run in the Republican presidential primary in her home state, Haley said that she would be “the last one to tell any candidate to drop out” of the race, but predicted that the Republican field would narrow significantly in the coming months.
DeSantis, meanwhile, has leaned into the populist reputation that helped put him on the national political stage in the first place. Ayres said that strategy is unlikely to earn him the support of Pence’s supporters.
“He’s sort of been everywhere, in terms of policy and the kind of campaign he wants to run,” Ayres said. “But certainly I think most people are going to put him in that Trump populist category.”
On the campaign trail, Pence sought to cast himself as a traditional conservative in the vein of Ronald Reagan — someone who could restore the party’s focus on issues like fiscal restraint, opposing government regulations on businesses and preserving the post-World War II order.
But that argument failed to win him broad support. He struggled to navigate a complicated relationship with Trump, while also being forced to defend many of the Trump-era policies that defined his four years as vice president.
For many moderate Republicans eager to deny Trump the GOP’s 2024 nomination, Pence’s tenure as Trump’s vice president made him an untenable alternative. For the party’s populist base voters, on the other hand, Pence’s refusal to go along with Trump’s effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election exposed him as a political traitor.
Process of elimination
Pence isn’t the first Republican to drop out of the primary contest, though he is the best-known. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez ended his campaign in late August after a brief run, while former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd dropped out of the race in early October.
Ayres said that Pence’s supporters almost certainly aren’t going to back Trump now, nor are they likely to support other populists like DeSantis, who entered the primary as a top Trump challenger but has struggled to make a meaningful dent in Trump’s support.
“Whoever can appeal to the Reagan conservative voters is more likely to get what support he had,” Ayres said, floating Haley as one possible option for Pence supporters looking for a new political home.
Saul Anuzis, a Republican strategist and former Michigan GOP chair, said that exactly where Pence’s supporters go from here is relatively inconsequential.
Before he suspended his campaign on Saturday, Pence’s support both nationally and in early primary and caucus states like Iowa and New Hampshire hovered in the low single-digits. He scored only 2% support in a Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll of Iowa Republican voters released over the weekend. When those supporters were redistributed to their second-choice candidates, the overall results remained largely unchanged.
For at least some of Trump’s competitors, the biggest question is who drops out next.
“With Pence pulling out, people have to start getting serious,” Anuzis said. “They have to start analyzing who’s going to be able to make it in the long run. The significance at this stage of the game is that it’s starting the process of eliminating people who aren’t viable alternatives [to Trump].”
So far, at least four candidates have met the requirements to participate in the third Republican presidential debate in Miami on Nov. 8, including DeSantis, Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Trump is set to skip the debate and will instead hold a campaign rally in neighboring Hialeah on the same night.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Haley predicted that Pence’s exit from the race was only the beginning and that the primary field would narrow significantly in the coming weeks and months. Christie said on Sunday that he expects more candidates to exit the race after the debate in Miami.
“In the end, it just means this race is narrowing, which everyone said that it would,” Christie said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The Miami debate could prove pivotal in the race. With fewer candidates on the stage and a growing desire among some Republicans to form a united front against Trump, Republican voters who are ready to see new leadership in the party could go into the forum with more open minds.
“The most important thing here is that it reduces the number of Trump alternatives,” Ayres said. “And that means more attention and more potential votes for the remaining Trump alternatives.”
Joseph Bustos, staff writer for The State, contributed to this report from Columbia, S.C.