Pence tests appetite for old-school conservatism in Trump-era populist GOP

Mike Pence
Republican presidential candidate former Vice President Mike Pence listens to a student after a town hall campaign event, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, at New England College in Henniker, N.H. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty/AP

Pence tests appetite for old-school conservatism in Trump-era populist GOP

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Former Vice President Mike Pence has centered his campaign around framing the choice for Republican voters as old school conservatism versus populism.

“Today, I ask my fellow Republicans this: In the days to come, will we be the party of conservatism, or will our party follow the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles?” the former vice president asked in a speech.


And Pence is confident that “Republican primary voters, caucusgoers in Iowa, are looking for a leadership in our party that can really bring America back, that can strengthen our military and ensure our security in an ever more dangerous world, that can revive our economy, put our nation back on the path to a balanced budget, and then can defend our liberties, and stand for the right to life.” For him, this means a Republican with clear-cut Reaganesque principles.

Columbia University Department of Political Science professor Robert Y. Shapiro doesn’t think this is the case. “Pence is talking to deaf ears; he is damaged goods,” he said. “The Republicans for now are the party of Trump unless someone more conventionally conservative takes over—and that will not be Pence.”

According to managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics Kyle Kondik, “I do think Republican primary voters generally prefer the new-school Trumpist/populist GOP instead of the old-school Reagan/Bush GOP, even though Republicans still generally revere Reagan.”

And, he added, a lot of voters fit the definition of being a “populist” in this context, which he notes is “conservative culturally but moderate or even liberal on economics.”

Further, despite the Republican Party’s history of making noise when it comes to debt and spending, “some of the stated fiscal conservatism of the old-school GOP is a hard sell electorally.”

“In politics, as in life, ice cream is more popular than broccoli,” Kondik said.

But, it might not be an exercise in futility, per Director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center Andrew Smith. As a strategy to either pull from Trump’s base or even just consolidate support from non-Trump voters, “it’s about as good as you can get.”

Republican strategist Ron Bonjean claimed that with this strategy, “Pence is using his campaign to trying to gain a foothold with the small slice of Republicans that make up the establishment wing.”

In particular, it will “certainly” be well received “within the Republican Party elite,” said Smith. He explained that former President Ronald Reagan era traditional conservatives still make “up the bulk of the institutional part of the party.” This is why Trump faced considerable difficulty throughout his presidency, “because he certainly did not run as a conservative in 2016 and really didn’t govern much as one.” Smith noted there were some exceptions, such as tax cuts, but credited Republicans in Congress for those.

Republican voters, though, are not the same as the party’s establishment members, Smith said. “I think that the voters are more interested in somebody who will win—like rooting for your team. You don’t care who the players are, as long as they win. And that’s a big thing that Trump has going for him,” he explained.

Political scientist at the University of South Carolina David Darmofal noted, “The debate that former Vice President Pence is seeking to have between Reaganite conservatism and populism is a worthwhile one for the Republican Party to be having.” However, he also acknowledged the populist turn seen in the base of the Republican Party. According to him, it’s “not clear that Republicans want to return to former President Reagan’s version of conservatism instead of former President Trump’s more populist definition.”

“It is a big question as to whether this is the Republican Party of Reagan or if it’s a new Republican Party — kind of reverting back to earlier 20th century Republican Party in a more insular American Republican populist party rather than the more ideologically-based conservatism of the late 20th century,” Smith agreed.

For GOP strategist Chip Felkel, the push against populism in favor of old-fashioned conservative values is “a great endeavor.” But it might be too idealistic in the current climate. “The base is all about national populism with a weird, if not bizarre, replacement of faith, Judeo-Christian values and actions, and adherence by political partisanship and tribalism.”

“That dog won’t hunt,” he said.

There’s also the question as to whether Pence can effectively deploy such a strategy.

According to Smith, “I think it’s a well thought out, good strategy.”

“There are many other Republicans out there — younger Republicans who maybe are in a better position to make that case. You can think of like a Tim Scott or Nikki Haley or folks like that, who are just a different generation than Pence who can maybe make that case more effectively but with a different tone to a younger audience,” he suggested. He further compared Pence’s delivery of the populism versus conservatism debate to a lecture from a grandparent.


Darmofal echoed this concern, saying, “It seems unlikely that Pence will be an effective spokesperson for this within the party, however, given how unpopular he is with Trump’s populist base.”

Bonjean further suggested that making the issue central to his campaign may not be in the hope of winning over voters. Rather, he said, Pence is “clearly focused on shaping his legacy because it’s very difficult to win a primary when a large chunk of voters support the Republican ticket mainly because of Trump’s populism.”

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