In public, Pence takes pains to ensure that he and the president are aligned. On June 26, at the task force’s first public briefing in two months, he delivered the Trumpian message that “truly remarkable progress” had been made fighting the coronavirus, despite a worrisome rise in cases in dozens of states.
I asked the task-force member why, at times, Pence hasn’t worn a mask in public to model responsible behavior. Is it because he doesn’t want Trump to see and take umbrage? “That’s the only reason,” this person said. “He’ll wear it in a microsecond. He doesn’t want to egregiously look like he’s opposing the president.” (Asked about Pence’s mask-wearing message, John Fea, a historian and the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, referenced Pence’s Christian identity: “You can’t apply these scriptural ideas about loving your neighbor until you first understand that actually wearing a mask is to protect your neighbor.”)
Even if he’s mirrored the president in his public comments about the virus, Pence will campaign in his own style. Normally, vice-presidential nominees are the ones who level the most pointed attacks, while presidents try to be the statesmen. Here, the roles are reversed. Trump is only too happy to stick nicknames on Biden and question his mental capacity, while Pence—avoiding visceral attacks—talks policy and draws more substantive contrasts with Biden’s record.
Whether anyone’s listening to what Pence has to say is another matter. The bottom half of the ticket seldom decides presidential races. And, in any case, Pence is defending a record that looks more damaged by the day. The pandemic is getting worse, not better. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Three-quarters of voters believe that the country is on the wrong track.
By some measures, Pence’s undimmed loyalty to Trump has paid off. He’s one of the few senior officials whom Trump hasn’t marginalized and, partly as a consequence, his presidential aspirations are still within reach. He considered jumping into the 2012 presidential race when he was in the House, but instead chose a different office. “I counseled him: Don’t run for president now, run for governor,” says former Vice President Dan Quayle, who viewed the Indiana governor’s office as a more viable springboard to the presidency. Quayle, Pence’s friend for more than 30 years, thinks he’ll run for president four years from now, though he says they haven’t spoken about it. “He’s been an effective and loyal vice president to Donald Trump,” Quayle says. “I would think he’d get a lot of credit for that. But it’s not automatic.” (One White House official told me that Pence is “entirely focused on helping this ticket win in November 2020.”)
Read: When a vice president becomes a threat
If he runs in 2024, Pence will need to stay in Trump’s favor. And that’s no easy thing. His allegiance hasn’t stopped Trump from questioning his value. Inside the White House, Trump has mused about whether Pence pulls in enough voters beyond Christian conservatives, the ex–White House official told me. In reply, aides would tell Trump: “Be careful, he brought an awful lot of votes your way and if you’re seen to be turning your back on the evangelicals, you may be in trouble,” this person said. (The White House spokesman Judd Deere told me in a statement that “any suggestion that President Trump does not appreciate and value Vice President Pence’s advice, experience, and skill is simply false and complete fabrication.”)