Can Mike Pence win the Indiana presidential primary?


EVANSVILLE — In 1968, former vice president Richard Nixon pulled off what no other modern candidate for the White House had done, which was to win the presidency without carrying his home state primary.

There was a reason why Nixon didn’t win the GOP California primary. Its favorite son, Gov. Ronald Reagan, was on the ballot, so Nixon didn’t even bother qualifying.

Another former vice president named Mike Pence is seeking the presidency in 2024. For the former Indiana governor, the idea that he can use his home state as a bulwark and springboard over the 10-person (and growing) field remains in doubt. Pence picked up the endorsement of Gov. Eric Holcomb last week. But so far as I can tell, that is not translating into any degree of widespread support.

Last Tuesday, Hamilton County Republican Chairman Mario Massillamany announced a July 12 fundraiser for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, coming in Pence’s current home county. “This event is being hosted by State Rep. Chris Jeter and Bob Grand,” Massillamany said in an email to his constituents.

Grand gravitating toward DeSantis is a big deal. He didn’t want to comment when I talked to him on Wednesday, citing his long-time friendship with Pence. While he played a big role in elevating Pence toward the 2012 gubernatorial nomination which essentially coaxed the congressman out of the presidential cycle that year at a time when Gov. Mitch Daniels was pondering a candidacy, he has decided to back the Florida governor.

Holcomb offered his support for Pence in a tweet last Thursday, saying, “I’ve known Mike Pence for decades. Throughout those years, he’s remained as honest as the day is long. As one Hoosier governor to another, I look forward to supporting him as the weeks and months ahead unfold.”

Holcomb told me in Evansville last Friday, “It was a no-brainer for me. I’m for the home team. I’ve known him the longest.” Pence had elevated Holcomb to the vacant lieutenant governor job in February 2016, creating his historic “107 day campaign” when Pence resigned his second gubernatorial nomination to run for vice president that July.

Holcomb added that Pence articulated worthy issues on NBC’s “Meet The Press” the week before, mentioning balancing the budget, forging immigration reform and restoring America’s standing in the world. “Just in that one interview, he addressed all three of those buckets,” Holcomb said.

But that so far has not translated to widespread support. I talked with several Republican legislators in Evansville last Friday; none was poised to jump on the Pence bandwagon. State Rep. Wendy McNamara said that there has been no caucus conversations about backing Pence, or the presidential race, for that matter.

That Rep. Jeter has signed on to the DeSantis effort reveals a third option. Trump will likely be backed by a significant portion of the 70-strong GOP caucus despite the fact that he faces more than 70 felony charges, about half of them stemming from his keeping classified documents at his Florida resort on a ballroom stage and next to his toilet.

While there has been no recent public polling in Indiana so far this year, the perception is that Trump remains popular with Hoosier Republicans. In a December 2022 Bellwether Research Poll in Indiana, Trump led with 39%, DeSantis was at 28% and Pence had 13%.

In 2022, Pence backed Republican Ron Turpin for the open SD14 seat in Fort Wayne. But it had little impact as Tyler Johnson won easily with 52% in a three-way race (Turpin received 38%).

Pence was in Fort Wayne last week, enthusiastically welcomed to headquarters by Allen County Chairman Steve Shine. According to WBOI, Pence met with about 50 supporters and asked for them to donate, volunteer and pray for him and his campaign as he goes against his former boss and running mate Donald Trump. “I’m more convinced than ever that Republicans know our party needs new leadership to carry us to victory,” Pence said.

Thus far, Pence has been a distant third in the Real Clear Politics national composite with 5.8%, compared to 52.1% for Trump and 21.5% for DeSantis. Pence appears to be staking his long-shot hopes in Iowa, saying that it is the early state most like Indiana. In the RCP Iowa polling composite, he is a distant fourth at 3.7%, trailing Trump (46%), DeSantis (24.7%) and Haley (3.7%).

But it’s early. Future presidents named Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter were polling in single digits at this point in their races.

Home state strength is important. Only Presidents James K. Polk, Woodrow Wilson, Nixon, and Trump have won the White House while losing their home state in a general election. DeSantis finds himself in a similar situation as Pence. A Florida Atlantic University poll in May showed Trump leading in that state with 59% to 31%.

In a 2020 Washington Post article titled “If you don’t win your own state in the primary, you’re probably not going to be the president,” national columnist Philip Bump observes, “No party nominee has ever lost his or her home state since” Nixon. “In fact, it’s fairly uncommon for candidates to lose their home states at all, unless they’ve already dropped out of the race.”

Can he now pick up widespread support among his fellow Hoosiers? We’ll see.


Brian Howey is managing editor of Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.