Many dispirited Republicans, still struggling to accept Donald Trump’s decisive and legitimate defeat in last November’s election, have begun pondering what they might have done differently to have produced a different result.
After all, their nominee needed to draw only an additional 65,013 votes, distributed strategically in four close races — Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin and the second Congressional district of Nebraska — to have eked out another Electoral College victory (270-268) while still losing the popular vote by a margin of 7,000,000.
In fact, as conservative strategists play the “what if” game regarding 2020, and try to devise better plans to deliver victory in 2024, they ought to focus on one much more modest vote shift — just 18 ballots! — that would have all-but-guaranteed a comfortable GOP victory.
Which handful of voters could have shoved history so dramatically in a Republican direction? The 53 GOP members of the United States Senate who voted in President Trump’s first impeachment trial on February 5, 2020. If eighteen of them had joined lonely Mitt Romney and voted to convict the president and remove him from office, Vice President Pence would have immediately ascended to the presidency, becoming the prohibitive favorite to win the election just nine months later.
Every vice president compelled to step into the top job at a moment of national tension and crisis, enjoys an initial wave of sympathy and support. Pence could have easily intensified that phenomenon with the right choice of a new vice president (and presumptive running mate) under the 25th Amendment. Assuming he selected a popular, or history-making figure (Nikki Haley? Tim Scott? Marco Rubio?), Pence could have brought a different sort of excitement to Republican ranks.
Given his record of scrupulous loyalty to the 45th president who preceded him, Trump backers could have readily rallied to a Pence candidacy, while his more even-tempered personality could have made him more competitive with suburban Independents and even some Democrats. Exit polls show it wasn’t policy initiatives or ideology that turned a majority of Americans against the MAGA man’s bid for a second term. Among those who said a candidate’s position on issues was most important to their presidential vote, Trump won a clear majority — 53%. But those who prioritized “a candidate’s personal qualities” preferred Biden by a crushing two-to-one margin (64-31%).
When asked directly “does Donald Trump have the temperament to serve as president?”, 53% said, flatly, “no”. That number corresponds closely to the percentage of all voters who chose Biden. The core problem for Trump’s candidacy wasn’t his White House record or even his incoherent ideology; It was his character. Long before the misguided, demagogic efforts to undermine and overturn the certified results of a national election with record turnouts, the public found that character wanting.
There’s little likelihood that perception will change for the better if the former president spends the next several years in aggressively promoting his dubious “stolen election” narrative and claiming the 2024 nomination as his entitlement. His continued robust support from his passionate base within the Republican party — the same support that kept even many of the wary GOP Senators from voting to convict him in either of the impeachment trials — hardly indicates wide-spread or deep-seated support in the electorate at large. A rapturous reception at CPAC for a rousing speech to committed activists shouldn’t be confused with abiding backing in critical swing states.
Imagining GOP success in a theoretical Biden-Pence race last time (pundits may have derided it as the bland leading the bland!) will serve to avoid fatal mistakes for next time. It’s not conservative issues that need to be reconsidered or even re-packaged to enable future success: it’s the personal makeup and sound judgment of the leaders Republicans choose to represent their point of view. The party’s greatest leaders of the past — Abe Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan — all endorsed and exemplified the idea that character counts. The voters instinctively share that conviction and will turn away from any leader from either party, no matter how entertaining, who demonstrates an irresponsible and unreliable pattern of behavior.