Now that Donald Trump has indeed chosen to partner with Mike Pence, we need to remember that veep candidates rarely move the needle on election day. In fact, scholars Bernard Grofman and Reuben Kline at the University of California, Irvine, have crunched the historical numbers and concluded that “the net electoral impact of a vice presidential selection is at most one percentage point.”
But by picking the Indiana governor — a longtime right-wing conservative who checks virtually all the bat-crazy boxes — the Trump campaign has acknowledged that it needs help closing the deal with the GOP’s conservative base. To be competitive in a national race, a Republican candidate typically needs to notch 90 percent of Republican voters; according to the latest Fox News poll, Trump is drawing only 74 percent of Republican voters. Some of the naysayers are moderates who can’t abide Trump’s repulsive racism and sexism; but a huge chunk of naysayers are conservatives who view Trump as a liberal-leaning interloper, a guy with no conservative bona fides.
Hence Pence, the “safe” choice who can shore up the base. Or so it would seem.
On paper, he seems perfect. As a six-term congressman in Washington from ’01 to ’13, he had tea-party instincts long before the term was coined. He railed against Planned Parenthood long before it became cool. He has called climate change a “myth,” and has said that greenhouse gases “are mostly the result of volcanoes, hurricanes, and underwater geologic displacements.” He was an early cheerleader for the disastrous Iraq war, citing “overwhelming evidence” of Saddam’s WMDs, insisting that it “defies logic and common sense” to suggest otherwise. He has refused to say whether he believes in evolution. He has written in defense of cigarettes (I swear this quote is true): “Despite the hysteria of the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”
It’s also well known in conservative circles — and I’ll try to say this diplomatically — that Pence is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. One of his best quotes, from his congressional days, is still making the rounds: “Republicans from George Washington to George W. Bush just have the best ideas.” Um. George Washington didn’t belong to a political party, in fact he warned against political parties, and the Republican party was founded 57 years after he died.
And it’s questionable whether Pence would help nail down the conservatives anyway — because many don’t like him. In the words of Fox News commentator Chris Stirewalt: “I could hardly think of a worse choice for Donald Trump than Mike Pence. He is just exactly a cookie-cutter version of that Republican [politician] that people hate.” Ann Coulter says, “Pence is the combo-platter of disaster.” Conservative radio host Steve Deace, citing one particular Pence episode, says “It was the worst we’ve ever been stabbed in the back by a Republican. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”
You may be familiar with that episode. Last year, as governor of Indiana, Pence signed a state “religious freedom” law which allowed God-fearing business owners to discriminate against gay people. But after the corporate community raised hell about the bigotry, and vowed to boycott Indiana, Pence caved. He hastily signed a new measure that watered down the original law, rendering it toothless. Which is one big reason why a lot of conservatives now view Pence as spineless. In the words of Erick Erickson, Pence “gives Trump the veneer of conservatism without anyone ever having to worry that he’d actually fight for those principles.”
In fact, Pence is in so much trouble with Indiana conservatives — signing on to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion hasn’t helped, either — that his ’16 re-election was imperiled. Better to hit the escape button and catapult onto a national ticket.
Some observers believe that Pence will be an awkward fit because in the past he has taken positions that contradict Trump. Last December, for instance, he said that Trump’s proposed Muslim ban was “offensive and unconstitutional.” In September ’14, he extolled free trade: “Trade means jobs, but trade also means security. The time has come for all of us to urge the swift adoption of the Trans Pacific Partnership.” Back in ’06, as a congressman, he proposed “guest worker” immigration reform. But it’s common for veep candidates to dump their previous positions and get themselves in sync with the boss. Early in the 1980 campaign, George H. W. Bush dissed rival Ronald Reagan’s “voodoo economics” before serving the Gipper for eight years.
No, the bigger risk — as conservative commentator Rich Lowry points out — is that Pence “has never operated on the national stage …. Trump’s running mate will have to be extremely deft at explaining away and deflecting Trump controversies. There is no reason to believe that Pence will be good at this.” Newt Gingrich, accustomed to the national stage, would’ve been a more spirited defender – but his baggage was too weighty. Chris Christie would’ve been a more quick-witted defender – but the Bridgegate trial is slated for September, and yesterday his political mentor pleaded guilty to a felony. Talk about bad timing.
So it’s Pence. But we have this warning from conservative analyst Matt Lewis, who, like many in the base, is underwhelmed: “He is not, in fact, a wartime consigliere.” Nothing hits the mark like Godfather dialogue.
Oh and by the way: The stop-Trump conscience clause, the effort to free up delegates to vote as they wish on the convention floor, died last night.
I previewed the GOP Convention this morning, with Dave Davies, on WHYY’s “Radio Times.” Shortly, the podcast will be here.