By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst
Last night the vice presidential candidates Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, the Democrats, and Indiana Governor Mike Pence, the Republican, met in the only vice presidential debate for this election cycle. In contrast to the presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, this time both candidates were well prepared and articulate, but at times the debate lacked passion and flow.
Overall, the Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence did better during the debate and is widely seen as the winner. Pence smoothly parried a consistent stream of attacks by the Democrat Tim Kaine on his running mate Donald Trump, although he also left many of Trump’s worst statements undefended, instead opting to frame the attacks as insulting. In contrast to Pence’s calm demeanor, Kaine came across to viewers as excitable and aggressive, frequently interrupting his opponent and even the moderator.
Because of his strong performance, many commentators have already begun speculating on whether or not Mike Pence might have been setting himself up for his own run for President in 2020. But for now, the more important question is how much of an impact the vice presidential debate will have on the course of this election. Both candidates stood their ground in a way that won’t significantly harm their running mates, but Tim Kaine actually did a better job at putting Pence and the Trump campaign on the defensive.
Historically, vice presidential debates have never clearly changed the outcome of the election. The primary reason for this is that voters see the vice presidential contest as more of a side show to the main event, which is why the number one rule for the candidates is to avoid major errors that could do harm to the presidential candidates at the top of the ticket. Even when they do make big errors, they tend to affect mostly the reputation of the vice presidential candidate.
Only when there is reason to think that the choice of the vice presidential candidate itself somehow undermines the credibility of the presidential candidate does it have an impact on the race, such as the choice of Sarah Palin by John McCain in 2008. But this year there were no major mistakes in the vice presidential debate, and both candidates presented themselves as safe choices who serve as validators for their running mates.
From the beginning, Donald Trump’s choice of Mike Pence was a way to appease the Republican base by picking a staunchly conservative Governor who is widely seen within the party as a respectable figure. Pence did best when he spoke passionately for his conservative values, and when he went on offence against Hillary Clinton.
Tim Kaine sought to drive a wedge between Mike Pence and Donald Trump last night, repeatedly trying to force Pence to defend Trump’s statements about Mexicans, women, nuclear weapons, and Vladimir Putin. Rather than engage and defend his running mate, Pence variably simply denied some of Trump’s past statements, or moved on to other issues and counter-attacks against Hillary Clinton.
While that approach served Mike Pence well during the debate in terms of deflecting the attacks, the fact that he didn’t strongly defend Donald Trump will be the main focus of the post-debate conversation. Pence created space for commentators and the Clinton campaign to contrast him with Trump by pointing out inconsistencies and his apparent unwillingness to defend Trump. Notably, Pence described Vladimir Putin as a “small and bullying leader”, which contradicts Trump’s repeated praise for the Russian President.
Tim Kaine, on the other hand, vigorously defended Hillary Clinton when attacked on the Clinton Foundation, as well as the handling of various global issues like the withdrawal from Iraq and the civil war in Syria. This left very little room between him and Clinton for the Trump campaign to exploit in the aftermath of the debate, which has already begun on social media and in media appearances by campaign spokespersons.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 5, 2016
So while Mike Pence won the debate on style, thereby giving the Trump campaign a victory, Tim Kaine also succeeded at forcing the post-debate conversation on Pence and the Trump campaign. In particular, Trump’s reaction to Pence’s performance will be interesting to watch, given that his own performance in the first presidential debate lacked the polished preparedness that Pence put on display last night. That puts the pressure on Trump to do better in the next presidential debate on Sunday, which will quickly overshadow the debate last night.