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Pence vs. Trump? A historic potential 2024 matchup.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence arrive at a 2020 rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Former vice president Mike Pence on Wednesday sent perhaps his strongest signal to date that he might challenge former president Donald Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination, if Trump also runs.

And while Pence’s hopes appear dim in such a race, the decision itself would be historic.

Pence was asked by a student at Georgetown University whether he would support Trump in 2024, and Pence offered an answer that was decidedly not “yes.”

After taking a pause and offering a smile, he said, “Well, there might be somebody else I’d prefer more.”

Pence insisted that his focus is presently on the midterm elections, but the answer is the latest indicator that he’s not exactly ruling out running against his two-time running mate. The Washington Post and others have reported that Pence is ramping up for a presidential campaign — rallying with and planning fundraisers for GOP candidates, and visiting Iowa and New Hampshire — and could seek the office whether Trump runs or not.

That would be a striking decision on its own, given that Pence served under Trump — and often rather obsequiously — before the events of Jan. 6 turned Pence into a villain for Trump’s most ardent backers (and a literal target for some of his most extreme supporters). Pence had trodden gently around criticizing Trump and has continued to tout the agenda of the “Trump-Pence administration,” but he has occasionally sought distance and offered some rather sharp criticisms of Trump’s anti-democratic attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

Asked on Oct. 19 about supporting former president Donald Trump in 2024, former vice president Mike Pence said, “There might be somebody else I’d prefer more.” (Video: The Washington Post)

There’s little doubt that Pence would face long odds were both of them to run. But the mere fact that he’s considering it shows how unusual the situation is. Vice presidents have run only a handful of times against the presidents they served under, and none has done so since World War II.

The first example is somewhat incomparable: Vice President Thomas Jefferson ran in 1800 against President John Adams (and won). But this was at a time when nation’s two top offices were held by different parties, and the contest was in the general election. (The 12th Amendment was ratified in 1804, at which point the American people began electing the two offices together.)

The other most famous example would be 1940. Incumbent Vice President John Nance Garner III had been alienated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and launched a campaign hoping that Roosevelt would abide by the tradition of presidents serving no more than two terms. Roosevelt went in the other direction, though, engineering his own purportedly spontaneous renomination at the Democratic National Convention and swamping Garner. (Garner was replaced as FDR’s running mate that year by Henry Wallace.)

But perhaps the most comparable example to a potential Trump vs. Pence matchup came in 1844.

President Martin Van Buren, like Trump today, had lost in the previous election. When he sought a comeback, his former vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, was among the other aspirants. The former president and vice president weren’t close and had significant political differences. His party had also declined to fully support Johnson as its vice-presidential nominee in 1840 — something that also carries some parallels to Pence’s stock in the GOP today.

Neither Van Buren nor Johnson were able to gain the necessary support, though. That cleared the way for the nomination of a dark horse, James K. Polk, who hadn’t even been nominated initially and was considered a vice-presidential contender.

(We have also seen a president and a former president run against one another, when William Howard Taft faced Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Taft had served as Roosevelt’s war secretary, though, not as his vice president.)

Johnson was mostly an also-ran in that race, but he did gain some support on later ballots as Van Buren’s support fell away. Pence is thus far situated similarly, taking a modest but significant portion of votes in early polls and looking more like he might play the role of spoiler more than anything else — or hope to pick up votes if the party ultimately decides to move on from Trump.

The reason we’ve seen so few examples of this is in part because it requires an unusual setup. Incumbent presidents don’t often break with their vice presidents, and those vice presidents typically want to bide their time and run in their own right one day. And former presidents don’t often run, either by virtue of term limits, or, if they lost after one term, perhaps because they decided that one defeat was enough.

Polling isn’t on Pence’s side in a prospective matchup with Trump. Nor is history. But that history is also limited.