8 people who could be Trump's VP pick

Tim Scott and Kristi Noem headline 538's latest vice presidential draft.

Welcome to 538’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior editor and senior elections analyst): Earlier this month, with the withdrawal of his last serious primary opponent (former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley), former President Donald Trump earned the title of presumptive Republican nominee for president, unofficially kicking off the general election campaign. Accordingly, a lot of campaign coverage has now turned to the one slot on the Republican ticket that isn’t filled yet: the vice presidential nominee.

It's been four months since we last speculated about who will be Trump's running mate, so I say it's high time for another 538 vice presidential draft! My three colleagues and I will go around the proverbial room and each pick the person we think Trump is most likely to choose (not who would be the best choice, mind you). This will be a snake draft, meaning that the person who picks last in the first round will get to pick first in the second round. Courtesy of random.org, the order for the first round will be:

1. Elliott
2. Geoffrey
3. Nathaniel
4. Cooper

gelliottmorris (G. Elliott Morris, editorial director of data analytics): Normally I'd be a little peeved to go first in a draft; I'd prefer to have the coveted double pick that Cooper gets! But since VP noms are slim pickings, I have chosen to accept this task with a smile.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): Going second is sometimes quite nice if you think there are two picks with a similar probability of being right — which in this case, I think is true.

Not that I'm going to be terribly confident in any of my picks.

cooper (Cooper Burton, researcher and copy editor): I think my picks are a little less mainstream, so I'm happy to accept the burden of going last.

gelliottmorris: Geoff, I do think we all have the benefit of picking from a large set of low-probability events. Most of us will be wrong, but the right answer will be hard to pick anyway!

nrakich: All right, Elliott, who do you think is the most-likely-but-still-not-terribly-likely-in-the-big-picture Trump VP pick?

And no pressure, but I will note that, at this point in 2020, I got President Joe Biden's running mate right with the first pick. ;)

gelliottmorris: For my pick I'm going to go with ... Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina! You may know him best from his unsuccessful bid for the GOP presidential nomination last year. But the important information now is that he really seems to want to be vice president, and Trump has been happy to let him go for it. Scott was the opener at a Trump rally on the eve of the South Carolina primary, for example, and has been making the rounds with Trump since. Trump even said Scott had been a great surrogate for his campaign.

Now, I don't think Scott has a crazy high chance of getting picked. Maybe 1 in 5 or 1 in 6, say. But I do think he's the most likely pick.

cooper: Scott seems like a Mike Pence-esque pick to me — popular with the GOP establishment, attractive to evangelicals and picked to help sway more moderate voters who may be uncomfortable with the idea of a second Trump term.

Of course, that didn't end well for Pence, but Scott might be a different story!

geoffrey.skelley: That gets at a major question: Is Trump going to make a strategic pick or go for more of a loyalist? Or find a happy medium?

To me, Scott checks the strategic box more. Sure, he's not from an important swing state, but it's debatable how much a running mate really adds on that front. But Scott has been pretty well vetted at this point and would make history as the first Black person on a GOP ticket. With Republicans aiming to add more voters of color to their coalition, Scott would make sense. Plus, he’s not a spotlight seeker, so he wouldn't try to compete for airtime with Trump.

nrakich: Yeah, Cooper, I agree that Scott is a Pence-like pick — and ultimately, that's why I think it won’t be him. I think a major lesson that Trump learned from his first term is to surround himself with loyalists, and while Scott has cozied up to Trump a lot, I think he's fundamentally a traditionalist, not a MAGA Republican. Notably, he declined to say whether he would have certified the results of the 2020 election if he had been vice president at the time — a litmus test that other people on Trump's short list have answered in a more pro-Trump way.

It would also be historically unusual for Trump to choose someone who ran against him in the primary. As Leah Askarinam has written for 538, since 1972, only four out of 19 Democratic or Republican presidential nominees have chosen a former opponent as their running mate.

geoffrey.skelley: While it has been historically rare, four out of 19 is somewhat better than 1 in 5, which as Elliott noted might roughly be the probability of someone like Scott getting picked anyway.

And considering Scott dropped out before the voting, he doesn't fall into the Haley category of having become more openly critical of Trump during the primary.

gelliottmorris: I'll add to Nathaniel's point: I think one good argument against drafting Scott is that he just obviously wants it too much. He could get punished for coming across as a try-hard.

cooper: I think he has a strong shot at a Cabinet post, should Trump win the election. But I still don't think he's been sufficiently loyal for Trump to pick him as a veep.

nrakich: Yeah. Plus Trump has plenty of other options. So on that note ... who's your pick, Geoffrey?

geoffrey.skelley: I tend to think Trump will want to pick a person of color and/or a woman as his vice presidential candidate. And he'll want someone who has been loyal to him. Much like Elliott, I'm not at all confident in my selection here, but I do think South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem meets those criteria and thus has a reasonably good chance of getting tapped. So she's my pick at No. 2.

nrakich: Dammit!

cooper: Good pick.

I agree that Trump will be inclined to choose a woman or person of color, Geoff. But I think it's important to note, too, that many arguments made about the benefits of an identity-based VP pick aren’t always backed up by evidence. Not to say that there isn't good reason to pick someone who’s not a white man! Just that the expected electoral advantages don't always materialize.

geoffrey.skelley: Cooper, I think it comes down to the differences between what Trump may think he needs this time versus in 2016. Back then, he was looking for ways to make sure that traditional conservatives — including the very conservative and more evangelical Christian part of the party base — stayed in line. Pence did the job for that. But this time around, Trump has the conservative base locked up. So he may be more interested in picking someone who can counter accusations that Trump is sexist or racist, with an eye on expanding the party’s coalition.

cooper: This is true!

geoffrey.skelley: Noem has positioned herself as a MAGA politician who is closely aligned with Trump. That makes her a solid loyalty pick. She also is definitely angling for the job. Of course, maybe she's striving for it a little too hard like Scott. She recently got into some hot water because of a social media video she did promoting the cosmetic dentistry practice that did some work on her smile. But the fact she got that procedure gives us a hint at what she's thinking about: national exposure.

nrakich: I agree that Noem is the most likely pick. She just checks so many boxes. The only thing that gives me pause is some of these scandals that have been swirling around her: The fact that her daughter got preferential treatment getting licensed as a real-estate appraiser. Her use of a state airplane to attend personal and political events. Her alleged affair with Trump staffer Corey Lewandowski. Do you think any of that will hurt her chances, Geoffrey?

geoffrey.skelley: Nathaniel, I do think Noem's lack of vetting could be an issue. While she avoided the plane scandal turning into something bigger, that and the rumored affair with Lewandowski show how we just can't know what might pop up.

But since Trump may not choose a running mate until the summer, there's time for all that to play out.

gelliottmorris: For the record, Noem was my second pick. Rumors of her being near the top of Trump's VP list have been swirling for years now. But Trump has not embraced her as a surrogate as hard as he has Scott, and I think there are questions remaining over whether Republicans think they should target Black voters or women, if you parse this from an electoral angle. I'd give her around a 1-in-5 chance, too.

cooper: She also tied for first with businessman Vivek Ramaswamy in the Conservative Political Action Conference VP straw poll last month, which, I feel obligated to remind our readers, is not a scientific or predictive poll and should not be treated as such. But it does at least show that some of the most enthusiastic and potentially influential members of the Republican Party feel favorably about her.

geoffrey.skelley: Now, Noem does have a more conservative position on abortion, which might run afoul of Trump's attempts to reduce the salience of that issue. In 2022, she defended the lack of an exception for rape or incest in the state's law banning abortion that took effect after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

nrakich: OK, with Noem off the board, I think there’s one person left who is significantly more likely to get chosen than anyone else, so my pick (the third overall) is Rep. Elise Stefanik. She gained the trust of Trumpworld in 2019 when she was one of his most forceful defenders during his first impeachment, and she hasn’t looked back. And just as with Scott and Noem, Trump and his staff may think that picking her, a young woman (in fact, she was at one point the youngest woman ever elected to Congress), will help soften their image and appeal to swing voters.

cooper: I think that's the next-best pick, Nathaniel. Stefanik's moderate origins could also help her appeal to suburban and independent voters. She was also the only member of the top House Republican brass who didn’t mount a bid for the speakership after Kevin McCarthy was ousted. Some speculated that was because she wanted to keep her hands clean to avoid spoiling any future opportunities.

nrakich: Yeah, she kind of has the best of both worlds. She used to work in the George W. Bush administration and was pretty moderate for her first few terms in the House. But she has been solidly loyal to Trump for years now, so I think Trumpworld is satisfied that she's truly one of them. That said, I don't think many swing voters are going to be swayed by Trump's VP pick either way.

geoffrey.skelley: To Cooper's point, Stefanik's record in the House is less conservative than most of her party, at least based on DW-NOMINATE, which measures ideology by how members vote in Congress. This is surprising given how MAGA she's become in her presentation.

She also received a lot of conservative praise late last year for her performance at a congressional hearing in which she interrogated college presidents over anti-Semitism on college campuses.

gelliottmorris: Stefanik checks the loyalty metric for a VP perhaps better than anyone else. Early on in the 2016 primary, she refused to disavow Trump when it was still common for some Republicans to do so, and she very loudly and prominently agrees with his statements about the 2020 election being stolen. Also, she has said publicly that she'd accept the pick.

cooper: All right, my picks are definitely less probable than what’s been said so far. But I think my first choice still has a solid — if outside — chance: former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

geoffrey.skelley: Heh heh heh

I wondered if we'd see Gabbard.

gelliottmorris: I had hoped we would!

nrakich: Now that is a bold pick!

geoffrey.skelley: Cooper, what's the former Democrat got going for her?

cooper: First, like every pick we’ve made so far, Gabbard is not a white man. As a person of color and a woman, she’s got two points in her favor if that is indeed what Trump is looking for. Even still, it would certainly be quite a turnaround for the former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, but I don’t necessarily think that would bother Trump all that much — after all, he is also a former Democrat!

And Gabbard’s presence might give the Republican ticket the appearance of bipartisan legitimacy, though anyone looking past the surface would be able to see that’s not really true. Gabbard has formally left the Democratic Party and aligned herself pretty thoroughly with conservative politicians and values. She’s had a large presence on the conservative media circuit the last few years, even filling in for Tucker Carlson two years ago, and she was a headline speaker at CPAC last month.

Gabbard has said she’d take the job if it was offered to her. And she got fifth in a recent poll (this one was scientific!) that asked Republicans whom they wanted Trump to pick as VP. That’s higher than some other big names we’ve already mentioned, like Noem!

geoffrey.skelley: It's interesting. On the one hand, I think Trump gives the ticket plenty of Democrat-turned-Republican flavor, and I'm not sure you'd want to risk two such names on the ticket and risk bothering some conservatives. On the other hand, the conservatives are all with Trump now, and Gabbard might seem more compelling to some swing voters because she shifted her political outlook so recently.

nrakich: Yeah, Trump now defines what voters think of as "conservative," so I don't think that would be an obstacle at all. You've convinced me, Cooper; good pick!

geoffrey.skelley: Back in 2019, I wrote about Gabbard's base of support in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. She appealed to far more men than women, including very few women donors, and was more likely to attract voters who said they'd backed Trump in 2016. So in a sense, she already was drawing more Trump-aligned voters. At the same time, she did draw far more independents than self-identified Democrats, so perhaps she's got a broader appeal.

Still, just to point out how wild this would be, Gabbard was running to be the nominee to face Trump four years ago. Even with her embrace among conservative media, would Trump really select her? Guess we'll see.

gelliottmorris: I think the Gabbard pick also optimized your bragging rights later, Cooper, so it's a good one on that axis too. Who ya got next?

cooper: This next pick is definitely a hot take, but I want to stir the pot a little bit. I'm gonna go with a man who's found himself with quite a bit of free time as of late ... former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

geoffrey.skelley: Spicy!

nrakich: LOLOLOL

cooper: As I said, he now has lots of time on his hands since departing the House in December. He’s said he’s willing to serve in a future Trump administration, and he’s a prolific fundraiser, having raised hundreds of millions of dollars for House Republicans during his time in Congress. That’s the kind of fundraising prowess that Trump’s campaign will desperately need as it faces shrinking small-dollar donations and a growing cash deficit against Biden’s reelection campaign. McCarthy could help soothe some of the worries among big GOP donors over how their donations will be spent.

Obviously, he’s a dark-horse pick. Trump and he have had a rocky relationship at times, which is probably a major strike against him, since Trump seems to value loyalty above pretty much everything else. But I still think it’s at least in the realm of possibility … albeit unlikely.

geoffrey.skelley: Now this is something I'd have to see to believe.

Can you imagine a chief MAGA proponent like Rep. Matt Gaetz having to address this selection after helping push McCarthy out the door? Oy.

It's also fair to point out that much of the House GOP wasn't intent on putting McCarthy out to pasture. The motion to vacate that ended up ousting him was backed by a very small minority of the party's conference. Now, he didn't have an easy time placating conservatives when he was first elected speaker in January 2023. But the larger point is that, although McCarthy would probably be viewed as "swampy" in the eyes of many conservatives, he'd also weirdly reflect an attempt to unify the party by combining Trump's MAGA impulses with McCarthy's MAGA-infused but more traditional conservative outlook.

nrakich: I think, apart from the fact that Trump and McCarthy don't really get along, a big problem with McCarthy is that he is already a well-known national figure, and his image is an unfortunate combination of unpopular and pathetic. In a YouGov/The Economist poll from late October, just after McCarthy lost the speakership, only 23 percent of Americans had a favorable view of him, while 48 percent had an unfavorable view. Plus, the thing McCarthy will always be most famous for is the public humiliation of being ousted as speaker, and as we all know, Trump doesn't like losers.

cooper: I think it would also be a public rebuke of the obstructionist, right-wing group of House Republicans that has gridlocked Congress this year. That could work in Trump's favor with moderate voters, but it could also backfire if conservative voters grow disillusioned. And you're right, Nathaniel, McCarthy is not particularly well-liked by any core constituency.

nrakich: OK, for my second pick, I'm going to go with a more boring answer: Sen. J.D. Vance. Now, I think a woman or a person of color has the inside track here, but I don't think it's a de facto requirement for the GOP the way it is for the Democrats, with their much more diverse coalition. And Vance keeps popping up on public reports about Trump's short list. He's also on Trump's good side (despite saying some anti-Trump things back in 2016), having received Trump's endorsement for Senate in 2022, and has an inspiring personal story, as recounted in his memoir "Hillbilly Elegy."

cooper: He's certainly been a Trump warrior since arriving in the Senate; last year, he voted against Biden 90 percent of the time. That's more than all but 12 of his Republican colleagues. If Trump is looking for a loyal lieutenant, Vance (or his voting record, at least) seems like he would fit the bill.

geoffrey.skelley: I wondered if Vance would come up. He's certainly become something of a spokesman for the new right that Trump helped energize with his victory in 2016. I don’t know, though, if Trump would want to deal with the litany of Vance’s past anti-Trump comments that would inevitably resurface. Trump has referenced those comments even while campaigning for Vance, once saying, "J.D. is kissing my ass he wants my support so much."

gelliottmorris: I think the Vance pick comes with high uncertainty, mainly because it depends a lot on his personal preferences. He could probably keep his Senate seat for decades, and that's a lot to give up to be a glorified paper pusher for a few years. In January, someone asked him if he'd be willing to be Trump's VP, and he replied, "I think that’s the best place for me is to actually be an advocate of the agenda in the United States Senate." But he didn't completely rule out the possibility, adding, "But certainly if the president asked, I would have to think about [it]."

nrakich: OK, we're running out of time (reader, we are already 20 minutes over!), so Geoffrey, let's get your second (and final) pick!

geoffrey.skelley: So, this is a fun one. Once again, I'm not at all confident in it, but the recent reporting about this possibility was too much to ignore. With my next pick, I select Sen. Marco Rubio.

cooper: Little Marco!

nrakich: I'm so glad you picked him even though I think it's a bad pick. [cracks knuckles] It's time for some 12th Amendment law!

geoffrey.skelley: Rubio is, at this point, a long-tenured senator from a big diverse state. He's a well-regarded conservative, but he's also Latino and would be a historic, symbolic pick. He is also undoubtedly a bigger fish than any of the other names we've mentioned here.

However, there's one big problem: the 12th Amendment. Florida will have 30 electors in the Electoral College, but under that amendment, they can't vote for a candidate for president and a candidate for vice president who are both from their state. To make this more tenable — not that Trump has shown much interest in the rule of law or the Constitution, mind you — one of Trump or Rubio would have to establish residency outside of Florida. There is precedent for this: In 2000, Dick Cheney switched his voter registration from Texas to his old home state of Wyoming in order to avoid this issue with George W. Bush, who also hailed from Texas.

cooper: Yeah, I don’t think Trump would be very interested in changing his residency, at least back to New York, given his recent legal battles with state and local officials there. I suppose he could move to some other state he has a resort in, like New Jersey, but who knows if he'll even own those for much longer?

geoffrey.skelley: Well, Trump may be the one with multiple houses in multiple states, but Rubio might be the better bet to move in this scenario. He's been in the Senate for over a decade now, so maybe he'd be willing to give up his seat to take a shot at the vice presidency.

nrakich: Yeah, I just don't see it, Geoffrey. Rubio would have to resign his Senate seat if he moves out of Florida, and that seems like a big cost, even though the benefits of being Trump's running mate are also potentially huge.

And to Cooper’s point, I don't think Trump is the type to say, "Don't worry, man, I'll move so as not to inconvenience you."

cooper: It would be a lot to ask of a sitting U.S. senator, especially given that Rubio isn't up for reelection this year and could hold onto his seat if Trump loses.

geoffrey.skelley: I am dubious for that reason. However, it might be Rubio's best chance of ever becoming president. And those who have sought it once still want it.

nrakich: Rubio has also said of this possibility, as recently as January, "We’re both from the same state, so that’s probably not going to work that way."

geoffrey.skelley: I think it's just a question of how Rubio can best position himself to become president. As things stand, it ain't happening. So while this is all far-fetched, that aspect has at least intrigued me.

cooper: Rubio has criticized Trump heavily in the past, too. Supposedly, they’ve mended their relationship, but I’m not sure that Trump is so forgetful, especially after he felt so betrayed by his last VP pick.

geoffrey.skelley: True, although like Sen. Ted Cruz, Rubio has mostly aligned himself with Trump since his failed 2016 presidential bid. In that sense, he's like many in the party.

nrakich: OK, Elliott, take us home!

gelliottmorris: All right, here’s my pick — and hear me out. Keep in mind that I think we’ve exhausted pretty much all the good options, so this is one of those low-probability picks that come with high bragging rights if they hit. And that pick is … Trump cheerleader Kari Lake.

cooper: I don’t think that’s a terrible pick!

nrakich: Not for the eighth pick, not at all.

gelliottmorris: Such high praise! Not great, not terrible.

Lake, who lost the 2022 Arizona gubernatorial election, is currently running to be the state’s next senator. She's the odds-on favorite to get the Republican nomination for that seat: She’s polling way ahead of the competition — by about 30 percentage points, according to home-state pollster Noble Predictive Insights. And I think it’s fair to say she is likelier to keep running for Senate than to jump ship and run on Trump’s ticket.

However, Lake has been one of the loudest voices amplifying Trump’s 2020 stolen election claims and is so pro-Trump that The Atlantic has dubbed her the “leading lady” of Trumpism. She has said Trump has “big dick energy” and won the 2023 straw “poll” for VP at CPAC.

nrakich: I'm skeptical it will be Lake in the end because she has no experience in elected office and, considering he’ll be 78 years old on Election Day, Trump probably wants to pick someone who can assure voters they are ready to be president. But Lake is almost always included on lists of people who could be Trump’s running mate, so there is probably some there there.

cooper: It’s also complicated by the fact that she’s already running for Senate in Arizona this year. But stranger things have happened, and Arizona’s statewide primary isn’t until late July, so there’s time for another candidate to take her place should Trump pick her.

geoffrey.skelley: If the veepstakes comes down to loyalty, Lake might be the best bet. She's made herself a 100 percent, no-doubter Trump backer, with particularly vociferous support for Trump's false claims about the 2020 election being stolen. And hey, she's taken the same position about her 2022 defeat in Arizona's gubernatorial race, so in a sense she's walked the walk of discredited election denialism.

nrakich: Well, that’ll do it for 538’s second 2024 vice presidential draft. Is Trump’s running mate somewhere on our draft board? Or did we miss someone obvious? Readers, let us know what you think!

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