Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > What If Mike Pence is the 2020 Republican Presidential Nominee?

Nov 3, 2019

What If Mike Pence is the 2020 Republican Presidential Nominee?

tags: Gerald Ford,JFK,presidential history,impeachment,Nixon,Mike Pence,Trump,Lyndon B Johnson

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of “Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama” (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

Could the House vote to impeach Donald Trump by the end of the year? The tumult over the Ukraine telephone conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky led Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. The impending impeachment trial will take place after Thanksgiving, if not later. While it seems unlikely at this point, if Trump was removed from office or if he resigned, Vice President Mike Pence would become president with less than a year remaining in the present Presidential term. 

The latest in any Presidential term that a President has left office was in 1963. After John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, Lyndon B. Johnson became President with slightly less than a year until Election Day 1964 and approximately one year and two months left in JFK’s term. 

As the 1964 presidential election approached, LBJ’s only challenger for the Democratic Party nomination was Alabama Governor George Wallace. Wallace was a nationally known, controversial figure, after he opposed the admission of two African American students to the University of Alabama in June 1963.  Wallace was unable to put a dent into Johnson’s primary campaign, however.

The only other potential obstacle to LBJ’s presidential campaign was Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy who was still in the cabinet until the summer of 1964. RFK wished to be Johnson’s Vice Presidential running mate, but Johnson had “bad blood” with RFK from the beginning of the JFK Presidency. LBJ did not want RFK to have any influence in his full term bid, and so he chose Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey as his running mate instead.  In the election, Johnson received an all-time high of 61.1 percent of the vote and 486 electoral votes. He defeated Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona by winning 44 of 50 states.

After Warren G. Harding died on August 2, 1923, his successor became president with the second least amount of time left in a presidential term. Calvin Coolidge became president with about nineteen months left until the next inauguration, and about fifteen months to Election Day 1924. 

Coolidge faced the opposition of progressive California Senator Hiram Johnson, who competed in a number of primaries, but only won in South Dakota. Progressive Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, Sr. ran a vigorous third party campaign as the revived Progressive Party nominee, winning his home state, and 16.6 percent of the total national vote. Ultimately, Coolidge easily defeated his two opponents, La Follette, and Democratic Presidential nominee John W. Davis by winning 54 percent of the vote.

If Trump is removed from office, Mike Pence would likely become president with the least amount of time left in the previous president’s term. To understand Pence’s potential chances in 2020, President Gerald Ford’s experience succeeding Richard Nixon after he resigned in August 1974 might be more relevant. Nixon resigned after the Supreme Court ordered him to hand over the Watergate tapes in the case of US v Richard Nixon.  While Ford became president with nearly two and half years left in Nixon’s term, a full year more than Calvin Coolidge had after Warren G. Harding’s death and 15 and a  half months more than Lyndon B. Johnson had after John F. Kennedy’s death, the effect on the Republican Party and Gerald Ford was extremely detrimental due to the Watergate Scandal and Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon a month into his Presidency and two months before the midterm election of 1974.  

This contributed to the Democratic Party gaining 49 seats in the House of Representatives securing a two-thirds majority in the 94th Congress. The Democrats also gained four members in the US Senate, to a total of 60 seats, making the political situation for Gerald Ford very tough for the remaining two years of the term. The Nixon pardon and the bad economy undermined Ford, and led to his defeat for a full term in the Oval Office in 1976.

It is seemingly a long shot that Trump will be removed from office, as only Senator Mitt Romney has hinted he would support such an action, and 20 or more Republicans would need to vote for removal in the US Senate. But there clearly are others who might vote to convict, making for a majority of the Senate advocating Trump’s removal, and as more evidence comes out, and discontent grows with Trump’s Syrian policy and his insults and character assassination of everyone imaginable, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to create an untenable situation that could make conservatives in the Republican Party prefer a person closer to their hearts and views, Vice President Mike Pence.

Therefore, it’s worth considering what might happen if Pence became president and tried to run for a full term as President while defending his connections to an ousted Trump. 

Would anyone in the Republican Party challenge President Pence in primaries or caucuses, if few were arranged already, or deadlines had passed for registration to participate in such primaries or caucuses?  Would a John Kasich, Jon Huntsman, Mitt Romney or others who formerly contended for the Presidency enter the race?

Would anyone attempt to make the nomination a convention struggle in August 2020 at the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, something that has not occurred in decades?

And how would this affect the Democratic Presidential nomination battle which would be in full throttle, especially in February and March 2020 when a majority of the scheduled primaries and caucuses will take place?

Would this scenario favor an establishment candidate, such as Joe Biden; or a more leftist candidate, such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren; or a fresh face from the moderate wing, such as Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, or Cory Booker? Or would it lead to others to announce their candidacy, such as Hillary Clinton or Michael Bloomberg?

Could a third party or independent candidate further complicate the political field, such as Independent Justin Amash running as a Libertarian? 

This is all uncharted territory, and creates the possibility of total chaos in an election year, potentially greater than in 1968.

So we could be on the way to an election year like no other since the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the tumult around the Vietnam War, and no one can possibly predict who will be inaugurated President on January 20, 2021.

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