Who might Trump pick as his vice president?

It's another 538 draft!

November 15, 2023, 9:16 AM

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

tia.yang (Tia Yang, editor/reporter): With one GOP primary debate last week and another planned for December, Republican presidential hopefuls are still battling it out, but former President Donald Trump has remained above the fray. He’s regarded by many Republican voters effectively as an incumbent, and nothing’s happened to dislodge him from his commanding lead in the polls. (As of Wednesday at 9 a.m. Eastern, he’s at 58.6 percent in our national polling average.)

And with bridges burned between Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence, he’s in the market for another running mate. Former Trump aide Omarosa Manigault Newman likened the Trump veepstakes to him handing out roses on “The Bachelor.” So which suitor do we think will catch his eye? We'll be holding one of our classic 538 drafts to answer that question.

As usual, this will be a snake draft and we’ll go two rounds, which means we’ll make eight picks total. Based on a random order generator, here’s the order: (1) Meredith, (2) Monica, (3) Nathaniel, (4) Tia.

Meredith, you’re up first! Who ya got?

meredithconroy (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University, San Bernardino, and 538 contributor): All right, here goes. I'm picking Tim Scott. Based on primary polls before he dropped out (and 538’s latest pre- and post-debate polls), Scott is hardly beloved by voters, and I’m not sure he did much to define himself or his politics clearly in the debates. But I think the latter works in his favor for the VP race.

He’s conservative. And he’s a man of color who talks about his experiences as a Black man in ways that appeal to Republicans. Jennifer Richeson, professor of psychology at Yale, calls it “the mythology of racial progress,” which is the belief that the U.S. has made steady progress toward racial equality. For a lot of people in the U.S., including white political moderates, carrying shame or guilt about racial injustice in the U.S. is uncomfortable, so a person of color explaining that the guilt and shame is unnecessary, or that socially we are absolved from more change, is really appealing for some. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is a good spokesperson for this, too, as Stanford political science professor Hakeem Jefferson explained earlier this year to the Washington Post.

I think Scott is on Trump’s short list for that reason. He also hasn’t been that critical of Trump and his record during the primary campaign, so it doesn’t make Trump appear weak to add him to the ticket. And for Scott, he avoids being labeled a hypocrite, because he hasn’t overtly attacked the ticket he would join.

Oh, and he's 58, so that will appeal to the voters who say they’re concerned that the top of these tickets are too old.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior editor and elections analyst): I think Scott would be a good pick ... if he hadn’t run for president against Trump. As Leah Askarinam wrote for 538 in September, it has become rare for presidential nominees to tap a former primary rival as their running mate. Of the 19 unique Democratic and Republican presidential nominees since 1972, only four tapped a former challenger as their veep.

Furthermore, Scott didn’t really impress on the campaign trail. For example, despite being really strong on paper, he failed to make an impression at the Republican primary debates. A 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll conducted after the September debate found that only 6 percent of likely Republican voters who watched the debate thought he turned in the best performance ... but only 4 percent thought he did the worst! In other words, he made basically no impression.

I guess he might be a safe pick for Trump, but he's not really going to excite any voters.

meredithconroy: He is not exciting, I'll give you that. But he can be the cooling saucer to Trump. Pence wasn't too exciting, either.

nrakich: True, but will Trump want to go the same direction next year that he did in 2016? Look how that turned out for him.

meredithconroy: Well, now I want to switch to my second choice. I am not a woman of my convictions, apparently ...

Monica Potts (Monica Potts, senior politics reporter): Yeah, I can't see Trump picking a Pence 2.0. That was really the party's influence over him at the time, right? He'll cut his own path this time.

tia.yang: When it comes to what part of the base he would appeal to, Scott is also a Pence-like pick in that he’s tied himself closely to his Christian faith and could appeal to evangelicals/the religious right. Out of the debate candidates last week, Scott seemed to be the one most trying to appeal to that part of the GOP base, including on the key issue of abortion — he urged other candidates to commit to supporting a 15-week federal abortion limit. Others in the party seem to want to pivot away from the issue, like Haley, who pushed for “consensus” and suggested that states should decide. That message seemed to really resonate with some debate watchers, many of whom think the GOP should focus on other issues — particularly in light of wins for abortion-rights supporters in last week’s elections.

Of course, evangelicals, for whom Trump is still the top pick, were probably more likely not to be watching that debate. I think it's an open question whether Trump still needs or wants to appeal to that wing of the party when he's locked down their support and the religious right’s influence on the party may be waning.

nrakich: Yeah, despite his checkered personal past, Trump remains popular among evangelicals for the simple reason that they see him as the president who (indirectly, through his judicial picks) overturned Roe v. Wade.

meredithconroy: Another group Trump has lost, and needs to pick back up, is white suburban women. But I saved my second pick for catering to that goal.

tia.yang: You're giving away your strategy! But speaking of next picks, Monica, you're up!

Monica Potts: Yes, OK! To be honest I'm a little nervous to say my pick, because I'm afraid it'll seem a tad out there. But I think that, first and foremost, Trump won't want to pick someone running against him because he usually demands loyalty. Second, I do think he'll pick a woman, both because of what Meredith said about needing to appeal to suburban women, and because he has a history of relying on women for leadership roles at work. Also, he's said he likes the concept.

So here's my sort of out-there pick: I can't get over the idea that he might want to choose Kari Lake, the Republican nominee for Arizona governor who lost in 2022. I know she's now running for Senate in Arizona, but before she jumped into that race, there was a lot of talk about her angling to be VP. Also, things don't look great for her in the state, with the potential Democratic nominee, Ruben Gallego, pulling ahead, and independent Kyrsten Sinema pulling more votes from Republicans than from Democrats. Unless something changes and Lake ends up pulling far ahead in the polls, I could see her wanting to jump ship to be on Trump's ticket. All my picks are wild-card picks!

tia.yang: Not out there! She was on my list too.

nrakich: She's on a lot of short lists you see out there. I don't know, though. I think it would be quite foolish for Trump to pick someone with no experience in elected office who is just as extreme as he is on issues like election denial. If Trump picks Lake, he would be throwing all political sense and strategy out the window in favor of something totally id-driven. Because it's Trump we're talking about, we can't totally rule that out. But I think common sense will probably prevail in the end and he'll go in a different direction.

meredithconroy: Well, you said this earlier, Monica, and you're right — Trump isn't going to be influenced by the "party" this time around. He'll go his own way. It's one reason why I think the stakes for the VP choice are really consequential. Lake is definitely in his sights, and a big fan of his. But I agree with Nathaniel, and I didn't have her on my short list because I am still naive enough to think the GOP has some influence over this VP choice, and she seems like a political liability.

Monica Potts: I could be wrong! But "totally id-driven" seems like a lot of politics lately.

tia.yang: To our earlier discussion about his history with Pence, I could see Trump just not caring about the usual VP considerations like picking someone with traditional political experience or who "balances" the ticket out ideologically. But Lake would still tick off some traditional VP boxes, being a woman from a swing state.

And Trump seems to like Lake — he endorsed her 2022 run for governor and has endorsed her 2024 Senate run. He even discouraged another previous endorsee, 2022 GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters, from running against Lake in the primary. Though, of course, that might not be his strategy if he was planning to pick her as VP, haha.

Monica Potts: Right, she could have decided to run because she knew Trump wasn’t going to pick her. But I'm still stuck on her being his pick.

meredithconroy: Lake lost the governor's race in Arizona, which I think might impact Trump selecting her. Not because she lost that race, but because she is a loser. He seems petty enough to not want a loser on his ticket.

tia.yang: With the third pick, Nathaniel, who are you drafting?

nrakich: Guys, I only need one pick. I am that confident that this person will be the Republican vice-presidential nominee.*

(*Disclaimer: Such confidence is totally unwarranted eight months before the nominee gets picked, but YOLO.)

I'm going with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

tia.yang: DAMMIT.

nrakich: It's unfortunate that the veepstakes is basically a box-checking exercise. But that's the reality. And Noem checks every box: She has political experience as a two-term governor and a House member before that. She is a woman, and I agree with Monica and Meredith that Trump will want to pick either a woman or a person of color. And perhaps most importantly, she was an early endorser of Trump — and we know the man values loyalty.

tia.yang: Yeah, unlike those explicitly running against Trump, her endorsement in September made it look like she's almost explicitly running for that VP position.

Former president and 2024 Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump and South Dakota Governor, Kristi Noem hug on stage during the South Dakota Republican Party's Monumental Leaders rally in Rapid City, S.D., Sept. 8, 2023.
Andrew Cabellero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Monica Potts: I agree with that, Nathaniel. I think Noem checks a lot of the Kari Lake boxes, too. Her endorsement at that September rally in South Dakota probably earned her a lot of points.

nrakich: She has also really embraced the culture wars in a way that Trump will find appealing. Earlier this year, she signed a bill prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors. And she has built a very pro-gun, pro-hunting image for herself online.

meredithconroy: Here's why I inevitably demoted Noem on my shortlist. Trump knows his appeal with moderate women in the suburbs is bleak, but I do not see Noem as the solution to that problem. As you just said, Nathaniel, she herself is an extreme culture warrior, and Trump’s focus on those issues seems to be driving some women away from the GOP. I hate when we compare current women in politics to the very few models we have for women in politics of the past, but on the surface she is very similar to Sarah Palin, because she is relatively young, doesn’t shy away from talking about her family, and talks about hunting and other outdoorsy recreation to buck some of the feminine stereotypes that plague women in politics. Palin didn't end up being a good choice for John McCain. But I agree Noem is someone Trump would pick.

nrakich: Yeah, the Palin comparisons will come up. After all, they are/were both governors from a small state. But I don't think those comparisons will be fair. Palin had served fewer than two years as governor when McCain tapped her. Noem will have been governor for more than five years and a House member for eight years before that. She is objectively more prepared to be president than Palin was, which was the big concern with her.

Monica Potts: Noem's national profile also seems to have been higher than Palin's was when she was chosen as well. Palin came out of nowhere. But for a short while, that looked like a good pick for McCain because she really shook up the race.

tia.yang: It’s my turn, and you know I didn’t rig the random order because my top picks are gone!

With the fourth pick, I’ll choose Rep. Elise Stefanik. With Trump constitutionally term-limited to one more term were he to win again in 2024, the VP slot could be an even bigger prize than usual for Republicans trying to get on the fast track to a 2028 candidacy. Stefanik has shown a clear interest in rising within the party and aptitude for doing so. Trump himself alluded to this last year, saying, “At this rate, she’ll be president in about six years.”

Once the youngest woman elected to Congress, she’s currently chair of the House Republican Conference and has a decent national profile. She came up through the party establishment, serving in the George W. Bush administration and on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign before serving in the House. She started off her career as a relative moderate but has shifted hard into Trump's camp, earning his favor while rising within the party. And to Meredith's earlier point about age, she's only 39!

nrakich: Yeah, if Noem falls into a gap in the fabric of the space-time continuum or something, I think Stefanik is one of the most likely picks. Unlike some of the other names we've discussed, she actually could be a bridge to suburban women. As you mentioned, she has a pretty moderate voting record (according to DW-NOMINATE, she is more moderate than 91 percent of the Republican House conference), and she could code-switch into pragmatic bridge-building talk more easily than someone like Noem.

And Trump likes her a lot too. She reportedly endeared herself to him when she was one of his most forceful defenders during his first impeachment.

meredithconroy: So, I am now out of picks. 😂

tia.yang: Picking last, I feel like you get a free pass to choose a fringey one!

meredithconroy: Wait, do we think Stefanik is fringe? I think she's a very likely choice for Trump. She is the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House, and although she initially campaigned for her seat on a platform that would appeal to young millennials (and led efforts to improve women’s representation within the GOP), she has since taken a turn and aligned herself with Trump, big time! We even noticed in our annual primary endorsement analysis that her leadership PAC, E-PAC, had taken a step back from endorsements in 2022. So yeah, her priorities have shifted, so you have to assume there’s a reason for that.

And yes, as a woman, Stefanik could bring more moderate women to Trump … if they are even still up for grabs, which I am skeptical of. I’ve harped on this already today, but despite his best efforts, Trump does poorly with white suburban women, and a young, ambitious woman like Stefanik might appeal to some who are on the fence about supporting Biden, or voting at all.

Monica Potts: I agree. She was on my list as well.

tia.yang: Well, Nathaniel seems convinced everyone except Noem is fringe.

nrakich: Haha. No, Stefanik isn’t fringe at all! She was going to be my second pick, in fact. But I just think Noem is so far ahead of everyone else in this race.

Monica Potts: Honestly, Nathaniel, you've kind of convinced me on Noem. Reevaluating all my life choices now.

nrakich: It's gonna happen. Mark it down.

meredithconroy: I can definitely see it happening. Of the two (Stefanik and Noem), I thought Stefanik was more politically strategic. But as we've alluded to already, a traditional strategy is unlikely to be guiding this choice.

tia.yang: I think Stefanik would be a strong traditional VP pick in any year just based on her trajectory. The fact that she's gotten there while successfully navigating House Republican leadership and the Trump-GOP dynamic makes it all the more impressive.

Anyway, the pressure of the double pick is real. With Noem and Lake off the board, a lot of my remaining picks are Stefanik lite, members of Congress (particularly women) who would make sense as VP picks for similar reasons! But I think it's worth returning to Haley, even though one of her weaknesses is, as we've discussed, that she's currently running directly against Trump.

Haley is one of the few who made it out of the Trump administration with her reputation relatively unscathed, even burnished. She’s a former governor with foreign policy experience, obviously wants to become president, and she could appeal to middle-of-the-road women.

I'm ready to get roasted, do it!

nrakich: Yeah, it just ain't happening. Leah also did an analysis of how many times each presidential candidate mentioned Trump on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, and whether they were positive or negative. She found that, since June 2023, Haley has become more critical of Trump online. I think that she has probably crossed the line into "anti-Trump" territory in his eyes.

As he posted on Truth Social after the September debate: “MAGA, or I, will never go for Birdbrain Nikki Haley. No loyalty, plenty of lies!”

Monica Potts: Yes, I agree it's really unlikely. And the fact that she is moving up in the polls (though still well behind Trump) is probably making it worse for her too.

meredithconroy: If there are people in Trump's orbit who think experience and temperament matter, I think Haley is in this. I agree that Haley appeals to a general election audience. But I don't think those qualities are a priority for them, and I don't think Haley would take the job. It does seem like she has fully burned the Trump bridge.

tia.yang: You know it's serious when Trump gives you a disparaging nickname ... I am basically ready to accept my defeat on this pick. Given Haley’s strength as a candidate broadly speaking, which I think we’ve seen in the primary race so far, it felt weird not to mention her.

But this is Trump’s primary, and we’re just living in it.

Monica Potts: I think if we were judging by normal political rules, Haley would be doing a lot better in the presidential election race, so I see why you'd pick her.

nrakich: Not that I need it, but for my second pick I’ll go with Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn. She’s basically Noem but with a lower national profile. She too was an early endorser of Trump. She’s a woman. She has 16 years of political experience in the House and five in the Senate. And she feeds her base a steady diet of conservative red meat.

meredithconroy: Yeah, this choice isn't too out of the blue. But I can't see Trump's campaign picking an older woman for 2024 (Blackburn is 71), and I don't think she'd excite many people, even though she is a bit of a firebrand in the Senate.

tia.yang: Blackburn was also on my list, and I don't know why I chose chaos instead. In addition to endorsing Trump early, she was floated as a potential running mate in 2016 and has remained close to him. Some commentators also suggested her trips last year to early primary states Iowa and New Hampshire were a signal of vice-presidential ambitions.

I agree that, especially at her age, she's not the most exciting pick, but among women with long legislative track records, she's definitely among the more Trump-y without having raised too many hackles.

Monica, your turn again!

Monica Potts: OK, my next pick is another chaos choice: Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. I know there are rumors that she's in the running. I don't know if anyone is taking them seriously. But I do think Trump values the kind of confrontational style she's had. She definitely has a national profile and isn't afraid of fighting on TV. To some extent, VP candidates are supposed to fight on behalf of the ticket, making the negative political attacks that keep the presidential candidate above the fray, and I think Greene could do that. And Trump would value it.

meredithconroy: From Trump's POV, does Greene beat him at his own game, though? These are the kinds of things he thinks about. She's definitely made in his image, but I think more than the other women we've mentioned (and we've nearly only mentioned women), she is the most threatening to his brand.

tia.yang: MTG reportedly has VP hopes and has been trying to rebrand herself to this end, but I'm not sure Trump would pick her. She has the confrontational Trump-y style of someone like Lake, but like Meredith said, she's maybe almost ... too Trump-y? Unlike Blackburn, she has raised hackles, and she has a thin legislative record because of it — including being stripped of committee assignments for almost her entire first term in Congress.

Monica Potts: Yeah, I agree with both of you. I could still see it happening though, if only because it's the chaos choice.

meredithconroy: What a time.

tia.yang: You have a strong Trump chaos ticket with both Lake and Greene!

Meredith, it's finally your turn again! Who's going to round out the draft?

meredithconroy: All right! So, I know I just alluded to this, but it's really interesting all of our picks are women or men of color. And I will be continuing that trend with Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Sorry to be boring (Ivanka anyone?!), but I do think it's in the realm of possibility, and worth bringing her up. She served in his administration, and by all accounts it seems like he tolerates her (and maybe even trusts her), and she wouldn't upstage him, which are things that I think he probably cares about.

tia.yang: Strong pick this late in the draft! She also has, obviously, strong media experience as Trump’s former press secretary, political pedigree as the daughter of former governor (and erstwhile presidential candidate) Mike Huckabee, and she's another candidate with an appeal to the religious right.

Monica Potts: I buy this! It feels weird confessing that she wasn't on the radar of this Arkansan. But she's a strong pick. Also, she has clearly been trying to position herself for higher office. And with Podiumgate continuing to pester her like a fly that won't go away, maybe she'll want to get out of the state.

nrakich: Oh, I think she would have been a good pick but Podiumgate disqualifies her. According to the annual Arkansas Poll, her approval rating in Arkansas is just 48 percent, which is the lowest for an Arkansas governor since 2003, and I suspect Podiumgate has a lot to do with that.

I don’t think Trump would be wise to put someone so damaged on his ticket. The first rule of the veepstakes is “do no harm.” If Trump picks her, it would lead to a bad news cycle for the ticket as the national press discovers and relitigates the scandal.

meredithconroy: Wait, I feel like I am fairly immersed in politics and political scandal, and I hadn't heard of Podiumgate! What an almost quaint and wholesome scandal. 😬

Despite this furniture scandal, I stand by my pick.

Monica Potts: I don't know how unpopular it makes her with non-Arkansas voters. I know lots of folks in the state are paying attention to it and take it seriously, which I would make the case that it is! But I don't know if it's on the national radar as much yet. As Nathaniel says, that could change if she’s the vice-presidential pick.

meredithconroy: Yes, and I shouldn't downplay something that matters in a local context. I actually appreciate that things like this are still politically consequential! This just seems so minor, given the scandals Trump brings to the table.

CLARIFICATION (Nov. 15, 2023, 11:01 a.m.): This article has been updated to reflect the fact that former President Donald Trump has endorsed Kari Lake in her 2024 U.S. Senate run in Arizona.