The last time Donald Trump picked a running mate, he made a conventional choice in Mike Pence — a relatively safe decision with traditional presidential ticket-balancing in mind.
But as Trump gears up for a 2024 bid to recapture the White House, the nascent thinking at Mar-a-Lago surrounding his potential vice president is considerably different. According to conversations with a dozen Trump advisers and close associates, the former president doesn’t feel bound by geographic or ideological considerations — or any standard political rules at all.
Those familiar with his thinking say his selection will be determined by two factors that rate highest in Trump’s estimation: unquestioned loyalty and an embrace of the former president’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
“A lot of times, a presidential candidate will pick a running mate to balance out wings of the party. But with Trump, that’s not the issue. He is the party, basically. It’s so united behind him,” said John McLaughlin, one of Trump’s campaign pollsters. “So his choice, if he runs, will come down to what he wants. It would be a much more personal decision this time.”
Trump hasn’t made his 2024 bid official. He’s expected to make a decision after the 2022 midterms. But he has been building a campaign-in-waiting that is already laying groundwork, and the question of a running mate is surfacing with increasing frequency.
He’s name-dropped Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as one possible running mate. Veepstakes speculation rose among insiders who saw him interact recently with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at his Mar-a-Lago club.
“They’re all begging me. They all come here,” Trump boasted to one adviser, who shared the account anonymously with POLITICO.
The issue of a running mate, advisers and allies say, has taken on a new dimension in Trump’s mind as he stews over his decision to pick Pence in 2016, only to watch the vice president help certify the election of Joe Biden as president in January. Though it was Pence’s legal responsibility, Trump considered him disloyal and recently went so far as to say it was “common sense” that the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters chanted “hang Mike Pence.”
The considerations that led Trump to name Pence as his ticket mate in 2016 — an evangelical conservative, Pence was a Rust Belt governor at the time of his selection — are no longer as relevant, Trump’s advisers say. They say Trump is far more likely to go with his gut instinct next time around. Trump partly relied on his daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, during the selection process last time, but the two are not expected to play the same role if he runs in 2024.
“Once you get past those two issues — loyalty and Trump going more with his gut — Trump has a lot of leeway in who he would pick,” said Tony Fabrizio, Trump’s lead pollster in 2016 and 2020.
“He’s not necessarily looking to balance the ticket geographically, but what he can do is pick to balance gender, race, ethnicity — a lot of different lanes there,” said Fabrizio, who is polling for a Trump-affiliated super PAC. “It could be everything from a Tim Scott in South Carolina to an Asian American in California, somebody Hispanic in Texas. There are so many choices and paths. And there’s lots of time to go.”
Those familiar with Trump’s thinking say his prospective vice president selection would likely draw from three general lanes of candidates: women, conservatives of color or a trusted adviser — or a “consigliere,” as one adviser described it.
Scott, the first elected Black senator from the South since the Reconstruction era, recently met with Trump in Palm Beach.
“It was a really warm interaction,” said one Republican observer in the room. “Scott was appropriately deferential without being gross, like some people are. What he said was thoughtful, and it was appreciated by the president. There was definitely chemistry there.”
Scott, who is running for reelection in 2022, has proved to be a prodigious fundraiser as well, pulling in $8.4 million in the last quarter. He hasn’t denied his own interest in a presidential bid in 2024, but he has said he wouldn’t run if Trump does. The South Carolina senator has already begun visiting other early presidential nominating states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone said the shadow presidential campaigns from Scott and so many others double as a sort of vice-presidential tryout for Trump.
“This is an audition. And Trump is paying attention,” Stone said. “There’s no question that people running for president are really running for vice president all the time. The key is to make it look like you’re not running for vice president.”
Within Trump’s orbit, there is a belief that a Black running mate could eat into Democratic margins in key swing states, and that Hispanic voters are showing more signs of being up for grabs — especially in crucial battlegrounds like Arizona, Nevada, Florida and Texas.
Among some Trump advisers, Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez is viewed as a promising future star. They say Trump likes her and raved about her speaking role at his nominating convention last summer. But her public and political footprint have been limited under DeSantis, who’s widely seen as an heir apparent to Trump. The two men have a cordial and respectful public relationship, but privately Trump sees the younger DeSantis as a potential rival.
When Trump recently mused about picking DeSantis as a running mate, many in Trump circles said he was putting the governor in his place, not seriously floating him as a name.
“Trump feels he made DeSantis. Trump sees him as a competitor. And he’s not going to have someone with better numbers,” one Trump adviser said.
Yet there is one wrinkle that could potentially limit either Florida politician from getting the nod: a quirk in the Constitution that suggests a presidential candidate would face a unique hurdle with a running mate who hails from the same state.
The former president is also less likely to be concerned with Florida because he perceives it as Trump country after his three-point win last year in his newly adopted home state. And he’s not as concerned about ginning up conservative turnout as he was in 2016, given his strong standing with the party base.
However, Trump is keenly aware that he had a problem with women voters, increasing the likelihood that he might look to strike a gender balance on his ticket. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn have risen in the way-too-early veepstakes chatter because both are “tough as nails and conservative as hell,” one adviser to Trump said.
“Reynolds and Blackburn are definitely in the hunt,” the source added.
One early vice presidential favorite — Nikki Haley, Trump’s former United Nations ambassador and a former South Carolina governor — appears to have been frozen out after she criticized him over the Jan. 6 riot. There’s also relatively little enthusiasm among Trump insiders, they say, for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who was being advised by Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, until he left the public eye amid a harassment scandal.
If Trump picks another white male as a running mate, those who know his thinking say it’s likely that individual would play the role of a close adviser, a super chief of staff of sorts. That could even include Mark Meadows, Trump’s last White House chief of staff, said one Republican who recently discussed the vice presidential issue with Trump in passing.
“Don’t rule out a consigliere lane for vice president, a Meadows-type,” the source said. “There were times when Pence occupied that role. No one wants to admit it now. But I observed it. But obviously Jan. 6 changed everything in that relationship.”
Trump’s former acting national security director, Ric Grenell, has also risen in the estimation of Trump insiders, as has another potential presidential candidate, Mike Pompeo, who was Trump’s secretary of state and Central Intelligence Agency director.
“Don’t sleep on Ric. Trump loves him, and unlike Pompeo or anyone else, he has no interest in running for president. That’s a big issue for Trump,” another adviser said of Grenell, who recently joined the board of directors for Trump’s super PAC.
Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign staffer who worked in his administration, said it’s hard to forecast whom Trump might pick because there’s so much time to go. Whomever is chosen “will have to be loyal, and they’ll have to denounce what happened in 2020. If they don’t, they’re disqualified.”
Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, echoed Caputo.
“Who should he pick?” she asked. “Whoever he wants.”