On a recent episode of “Saturday Night Live,” Colin Jost opened the news segment by saying, “Obviously, Trump’s not done yet, but let’s just say that Mike Pence is definitely warming up in the bullpen.” The (presumably liberal) studio audience in New York applauded — probably because they believe that any “normal” Republican would be better than Trump. Indeed, polls show that Democrats prefer Pence over Trump.
The prospect of a vice president preparing to take over the presidency would usually alarm members of the president’s own party. After all, the president won after many primary victories, and should be very popular with the party’s voters. By contrast, the vice president is chosen by the presidential candidate with little or no public input, and is less likely to be known to and popular with the rank-and-file.
But here’s what’s really surprising: Pence may be in the unusual position of being more popular than Trump not just among Democrats — but also among Republicans. In survey data from the fall of 2016, Pence was the first vice presidential nominee in nearly five decades of data collection to be more popular among his own party’s voters than the presidential nominee himself.
The chart below shows the average rating on a “feeling thermometer” — a scale from 0 to 100 that rates how “cool” or “warm” respondents feel toward a political figure — for the victorious presidential and vice presidential candidate among their own party’s supporters. These data come from the American National Election Studies surveys conducted in the fall of every presidential election year.
In every year until 2016, the winning presidential candidate was more popular among his fellow partisans than the vice presidential running mate. Only in 1992, when Bill Clinton held just a two-point advantage over Al Gore among Democrats, was the rating even close.
Until last year, when Republicans rated Pence on average six points higher than they rated Trump.
Before 2016, on average proportion, only about 12 percent of party members preferred the vice president to the president. But in 2016, 43 percent of Republicans rated Pence higher than they did Trump. Only 34 percent scored Trump higher than Pence — and the rest rated the two equally.
Why? Did ideologically dedicated conservatives prefer Pence’s consistently conservative track record to Trump’s more variable positions? Or did the party faithful prefer the candidate more strongly identified as a Republican?
No. Neither of those were related to the preference for Pence. So what was? Views of Trump’s character.
One question, for example, asked respondents how well the phrase “honest” described Trump. Respondents could say anything ranging from “extremely well” to “not well at all.” Republicans who thought that Trump was extremely or very honest rated him three points higher than Pence. But a quarter of GOP identifiers thought that Trump was only slightly honest or not at all honest; they rated Pence a striking 15 points higher than the president. And I found the same pattern for questions about how even-tempered and knowledgeable Trump is.
Let’s note that these data were collected before Trump was elected. After Trump won and took office, many Republicans have rallied around him. GOP leaders like Paul D. Ryan and Mitch McConnell — who maintained a cordial distance from Trump during the campaign — warmly embraced him. Republicans in the electorate followed suit, with 84 percent approving of the president’s handling of his job in a recent Gallup poll.
But should the president’s character again be seriously questioned, the Republican preference for Pence could easily reappear with a vengeance. The scandals bubbling around the White House could endanger Trump’s presidency. Day after day, news stories have been breaking that give voters reason to question the president’s personal character.
If more Republicans come to think that the president is not honest, knowledgeable or even-tempered, then more will warm to the notion of President Pence.
One of the turning points in President Richard Nixon’s downfall was when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in a scandal of his own, and congressional leaders insisted on appointing Gerald Ford to replace him. Nixon had joked that no one would try to get rid of him as long as Agnew was next in line. Once the alternative was the trustworthy Ford, the choice between Nixon and his vice president looked quite different.
Another major turning point came when seven of the 17 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted to approve an article of impeachment against Nixon. As Republican Lawrence Hogan, father of Maryland’s current governor, said, “The evidence convinces me that my president has lied repeatedly, deceiving public officials and the American people.”
If current scandals lead Republicans to reach a similar conclusion about President Trump, many will be quite glad to see Vice President Pence warming up in the bullpen.