It’s been more than a half-century since a vice presidential pick made a significant difference on Election Day.
That said, Donald Trump’s selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was a smart move anyway. It could help the Republican non-politician convince some voters that, as president, he really would surround himself with smart people experienced in governing, and with reliable conservatives and, shall we say, with staffers grounded in everyday reality.
The 57-year-old Pence has zero star quality, another plus for the 70-year-old Trump whose ego makes super-novas look dim. At the announcement Trump spoke for 42 minutes; Pence got 12.
We’ll see their public chemistry for the first time this week during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
But Pence has more valuable qualities for a wannabe president like Trump, mainly political experience. He’s an evangelical Christian, married once 31 years ago to Karen, and he is a six-term House member who was the popular No. 3 ranking GOP leader.
Given Americans’ historical aversion to House members as presidents, Pence left that chamber after 2012 to run for Hoosier governor to acquire executive experience for his own White House run someday.
As an original Tea Party member, Pence is fiscally prudent with solid conservative and leadership credentials that has reassured congressional and party elders, who unanimously praised the Pence pick.
Pence can also reassure the national network of establishment donors who’ve hesitated to commit to Trump. Pence is, for instance, well connected with the Koch brothers’ financial alliances and would give party stalwarts ready access to a Trump White House.
Strangely enough for a billionaire, money has been a Trump problem. In nine crucial battleground states Hillary Clinton and her allied super-PACs have spent $57 million so far attacking Trump. And they’re not even half-done.
In response, the Trump campaign has spent nothing. That’s similar to 2012 when Obama attack ads over the summer severely damaged an underfunded Romney. He never recovered.
Pence is a solid, stolid Midwestern politician who helps the New Yorker in a region he must dominate to have any hope of success on Nov. 8.
VP home states do not guarantee ticket victories, though. Texan Lyndon Johnson did help John Kennedy hold the South in 1960. But Paul Ryan didn’t capture Wisconsin for Mitt Romney in 2012, nor did John Edwards’ win North Carolina for John Kerry in 2004.
Honestly though, if Trump needs help this year winning the most GOP Midwestern state of Indiana, he might as well file for political bankruptcy today.
Pence describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.” Trump did surprisingly well among evangelicals during the primaries, but Pence adds strength there, along with his staunch pro-life record and bid to de-fund Planned Parenthood.
Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.
Gov. Mike Pence, last winter
Trump and Pence agree on many policy points. Both favor tax cuts as economic spurs. Both favor boosting the military, guarding gun rights and cracking down on illegal immigration. Trump is a recent convert to abortion opposition, and they differ on Planned Parenthood’s worth.
The new partners also differ on free trade, which Pence supports, and on foreign policy. Pence supported the Iraq war and troop surge; Trump claims opposition from Day One.
Pence, who supported Ted Cruz in the Indiana primary, opposed Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration, but has since softened. “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.,” Pence said last winter, “are offensive and unconstitutional.”
Pence has endorsed GOP efforts to reform Social Security and Medicare; Trump has mocked them.
Their styles, too, differ sharply. Does anyone need a recounting of Trump’s brash, crude, bombastic, braggadocio podium manners, or lack thereof? Pence is exactly the opposite — cautious, unassuming, even hesitant at times. And he’s quiet, many think too quiet.
But in this year of two big personalities atop major party tickets, a style contrast could prove refreshing and reassuring, especially to a large GOP base that wants to stay loyal but is repelled by the billionaire’s excesses. Pence could give them mental cover to vote Republican despite doubts.
We’ll get the first peek at Pence on the national stage in his Cleveland acceptance speech Wednesday night.
In this sense, the nominee’s rejection of Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie as running mates — who are almost as combative and verbally pushy as Trump — is revealing of a possibly refurbished GOP candidate.
Americans vote for presidents, not vice presidents. But Trump’s choice was an unusual direction for a man who prefers seat-of-the-pants to precise flight plans. The Pence choice was probably the most disciplined, savvy and conventional decision he has made in his unlikely 13-month campaign for the White House.
And it offers a glimmer – just a glimmer, mind you – of hope for a more grown-up, underdog presidential candidacy with an actual chance of victory in 16 weeks.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.