More Republican candidates need to follow Pence’s lead

Carl Golden

Former vice president Mike Pence was the first domino to fall, drawing increased focus and pressure on the remaining single-digit candidates for the Republican presidential nomination to confront the harsh reality that victory will not be theirs.

In the Real Clear Politics polling average, Pence, at 3.4%, held fifth place but showed no movement. His campaign finances had tightened and his frustrating lack of progress prompted the difficult decision to abandon his candidacy.

While he did not endorse any of his competitors, his departure from the race shifted the focus to those directly behind in the polling averages – former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 2.3%, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott at 1.7% and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy at 4.6% – none of whom has gained ground and remain well out of the running.

While rumors of a withdrawal have swirled around Scott, Christie appears intent on carrying through to the New Hampshire primary in January, hoping to finish strong in a state where he has gambled a great deal of time and money.

As former president Donald Trump, despite indictments and criminal trials, maintains a stout 30 to 40-point lead, the Republican establishment faces a more intense debate over the options available to it.

For those seeking a Trump alternative, the path forward involves choosing from among at least three options:

  • Convince Scott, Christie and Ramaswamy to end their quests and coalesce behind either Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
  • Hope that Trump will be sucked down by the quicksand of legal issues he faces, including the possibility of guilty verdicts.
  • Swallow hard and concede Trump’s nomination is inevitable.

Time, however, is not on their side.

The Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are little more than two months off. Trump holds a 30-point lead over second place DeSantis in Iowa and a 32-point lead over second place Haley in New Hampshire. 

Even if those margins shrink in the coming weeks, decisive victories by Trump in those states and the continued inability of his competition to gain ground will seal the deal for him.

Christie, the most strident critic of Trump in the field, has been unrelenting in his attacks on the former president’s intellect, honesty and policies, even predicting he’ll occupy a jail cell before the election.

If belligerence translated into support, Christie would be hard on Trump’s heels. It didn’t and he isn’t.

Christie, at 8.5%, occupies fourth place in New Hampshire, slightly behind DeSantis but well behind Haley. A failure to crack double digits there, though, will intensify the pressure on Christie to follow Pence’s example.

DeSantis, once welcomed with optimism as a viable alternative to Trump and capable of overtaking him, has been spectacularly unimpressive, losing ground to Haley while continuing to lag far behind the former president.

Haley has acquitted herself well, moving into second or third place behind Trump while drawing increasing interest as the candidate the others in the field could and should unite behind.

She is capable of appealing to suburban women – a crucial voting bloc to whom Trump is unacceptable – while maintaining broad support among moderates and even right of center voters.

Her criticisms of Trump have been more muted than Christie, for instance, and she has threaded the needle to avoid alienating the former president’s dedicated and fervent base.

She has polled well in hypothetical matchups with President Biden – as has Trump and others – but she is free of the immense personal and political baggage weighing on the former president.

As Biden continues to flounder under dismal levels of job performance support, he is increasingly weakened and vulnerable.

Concerns about his physical well-being and cognitive strength have grown steadily, even to the point at which a majority of Democrats feel he should not seek a second term.

A lane to success – the presidency and control of Congress – exists for Republicans, but only a united party will be able to take advantage of it.

Achieving that unity, though, depends on Christie, Scott and Ramaswamy recognizing their hopeless situations and putting aside their egos, aspirations and animosities.

Time, however, is of the essence. The sand is rapidly filling the bottom half of the hourglass.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University in New Jersey. You can reach him at cgolden1937@gmail.