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Trump says VP pick won't impact the race. So what's he looking for in a running mate?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The presidential primary is not over, but for most Republicans, it is. Donald Trump is the likely nominee. And he's already begun to speculate as to who he'd choose as his running mate, like this comment he made last week on Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: The person that I think I like is a very good person, pretty standard. I think people won't be that surprised. But I would say there's probably a 25% chance it would be that person.

SHAPIRO: But he also downplayed the importance of a vice presidential candidate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: It's never really had that much of an effect on an election.

SHAPIRO: Historically, the nominee announces their VP pick right around the nominating conventions in the summertime, but Trump has never been one to follow tradition. For the NPR Politics Podcast, political correspondents Susan Davis, Sarah McCammon and Mara Liasson sat down to talk about the calculations Trump may be making or, in fact, may have already made in deciding who his running mate should be.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: In 2016, Donald Trump picked Indiana governor Mike Pence. And at the time, it was seen as making up for the deficiency that he might have with the evangelical base or with people that were concerned about his socially conservative credentials. I don't think that that part of the base has those concerns about Donald Trump anymore. He doesn't have to worry about base support.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Iowa exit polls would tell you that he does not have to worry about that.

DAVIS: So in a in a 2024 general election, what is Trump looking for?

MCCAMMON: Well, you know, like President Biden, Trump is facing concerns about his age, so he might want someone younger. Even a lot of Republican voters expressed concerns about his temperament. They say they kind of like it, but they also are concerned about it sometimes. So he may be under pressure to pick someone with a track record that suggests more stability or moderation. He is, of course, an older white male. Now, that's not something Republicans are as inclined to be worried about, but he does like to claim that his policies are good for women, good for people of color. And picking a candidate based on those criteria might insulate him from some of the criticism around those issues and also, you know, at least help him make the argument to general election voters that he cares about women or people of color.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: You know, it's interesting. Sarah just said that in Iowa, the exit polls showed that he has no problems with his base or evangelicals. But the New Hampshire exit polls...

DAVIS: Yes.

LIASSON: ...Showed that he does have problems with independents and moderates, and he did very poorly among those. He did great among regular Republicans. So the question I have is - you know, Donald Trump often acts as if he believes in the political version of the cable news business model, which means you don't have to have a large audience or even an expanding audience, you just have to get the people that are your audience to watch you 24/7. And if that's what he believes, that it's all about getting a really enthusiastic group of supporters, then maybe he would go for somebody that is just as MAGA as him.

MCCAMMON: On this question of appealing to moderates, what I keep thinking about is this conversation I had with kind of a low-level Trump adviser during the 2016 campaign cycle who said, you know, most candidates appeal to the middle and then sort of bring in the fringes. Trump appealed to the fringes and brought in the middle. And so, you know, I think the question is, is he willing to try to appeal to the middle with his vice presidential pick?

DAVIS: Sarah, let's talk about some of the names that could likely be on a Trump running mate list. I think one of the places that nominees tend to look to, at least historically, is their field of rivals from the primary campaign. So who among there might stand out on this list?

MCCAMMON: Well, I would certainly look at the gentlemen on the stage with Trump on primary night in New Hampshire. We saw two of his former rivals, Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, standing there with him. They've endorsed him, as has Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who was not there that night. And they certainly seem to want the job, especially if you listen to Tim Scott and the way he interacted with Trump.

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TRUMP: You must really hate her.

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: No, it's a shame. It's a shame. Uh, oh.

(LAUGHTER)

TIM SCOTT: I just love you.

TRUMP: No, that's...

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: That's why he's a great politician.

(CHEERING)

MCCAMMON: Tim Scott, of course, was appointed initially, before he was elected by Nikki Haley, when there was a vacancy in the Senate. It sure sounds like he wants the job based on the way he and Trump were talking about Haley.

DAVIS: Yeah, that was kind of a little cringe because I feel like he was trying a little too hard in that moment. If there was any doubt Tim Scott is auditioning for vice president, it seemed pretty clear the night in New Hampshire. But, Mara, that does raise the question of Nikki Haley because, look, she seems to fit the bill of everything we just discussed. She appeals more to independents, to women and to the center. And she represents a wing of the party that has soured on Donald Trump. But these two people don't seem to like each other very much.

LIASSON: They certainly don't seem to like each other now. However, if you're going to be on the ticket with Donald Trump, and he wins, that is about one of the fastest routes to possibly becoming president because he cannot serve a second term. So I think any ambitious politician, especially in the Trump Republican Party, would find a way to grovel or kiss the ring - as Trump sometimes says, bend the knee - and get on the ticket.

DAVIS: I also think, you know, often, vice presidents come from Capitol Hill. And I would say that, if you were putting names out there, a couple of names come to mind. Specifically, obviously, we've referenced Tim Scott in the Senate. But in the House, Nancy Mace, the Republican from South Carolina, is someone whose name gets thrown out there - and also Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, a member of House party leadership and someone who has very methodically and very diligently worked to establish herself as one of Trump's strongest allies on Capitol Hill.

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ELISE STEFANIK: I'm proud to be the first member of Congress to have endorsed President Trump for reelection - the first - and I would be honored to serve in a Trump administration in any capacity.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, Nikki Haley is not the only female Republican that Trump has to choose from, and Stefanik seems to be campaigning for the job pretty openly.

DAVIS: Mara, one thing I think is worth thinking about Elise Stefanik in the context of vice president is I do think that Republicans want to put up a strong candidate for two reasons. One, Donald Trump is a one-term president if he runs again, so whoever he picks as vice president is going to be seen as a likely 2028 nominee. And that person is going to be going up against, potentially, in a debate - we don't know if there will be debates, but if there is a debate - against Vice President Kamala Harris. And there is a real hunger among Republicans to not just campaign against Joe Biden, but to campaign against Kamala Harris as sort of the de facto president. And I think you can see the argument for putting up a woman, someone who has a bit of an attack-dog reputation. I think Trump has called her a killer, which is one of the finest compliments he can pay a politician. And I think the Kamala Harris factor should be noted here.

LIASSON: The Kamala Harris factor is huge. One of the things that Republicans have been doing - and I think you can expect to hear them do it a lot more; how about on a daily basis? - is that because Joe Biden is 81, because he's called himself a transitional figure, that they will be saying Kamala Harris is the real nominee - the real candidate - because Biden will not serve out his full term, and she will become the president.

DAVIS: I think there is room in this political moment and for Trump for sort of a wild-card pick in that the driving force of his campaign is that, you know, he needs to shake up Washington, that Washington needs to be broken up. And picking a governor, a senator, a House member just feels so typical, politics as usual. I personally am doubtful that Trump thinks that he needs a strong running mate. I think that Trump thinks he's a strong nominee. So I - you know, the ability to pick someone from maybe the business world or someone from a military background or somebody we're not really thinking about seems more possible in this political moment than it has to me in past elections, where it always seemed pretty clear the universe of people that it was going to be.

SHAPIRO: NPR political correspondents Susan Davis, Mara Liasson and Sarah McCammon diving into the first of many conversations around Trump's running mate. You can hear more on the NPR Politics Podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND ARTHUR VEROCAI'S "LOVE PROCEEDING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.