Donald Trump announced today that Indiana Governor Mike Pence would serve as his running mate in the 2016 presidential race. The weeks-long suspense of who would join the Trump ticket is finally over, as the presumptive Republican nominee cast aside New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, and others for Pence.
Pence is a known variety in the Republican Party having served six-terms as a U.S. congressman and is currently finishing up his first term as Indiana’s governor. During his time in Congress he held key committee assignments and even a position in the House leadership. His resume is a strong one, and Trump brought him aboard hoping he can bring to the table key talents in the race to the White House.
However, like any politician and candidate for office, Mike Pence has some real appeal and some drawbacks. Exploring each will shine light on his role and impact on Election 2016.
The benefits of picking Pence
Unquestionable conservatism – One criticism of Donald Trump since the beginning of the primary involves questions of his conservatism. Over the course of his career in business, Trump has made public statements that led some in the party to question the depth and honesty of his conservative ideology, particularly around social issues such as same sex marriage and abortion. That Trump has never held elected office also means he has never been forced to go on record or take a firm position on policies in the way a legislator or governor must. Enter Mike Pence. Pence’s time in Congress and as Governor of Indiana has been one in which he has carried the torch of conservatism fairly consistently. It is true for fiscal matters and social issues alike. He’s a friend of a business, a supporter of low tax, a fan of small government. He opposes abortion, comprehensive immigration reform, same sex marriage. His voting record is a how-to guide for pleasing both Wall Street and values voters. He adds a sense of calm to a ticket that partisans worried may stray from apostolic adherence to Republican Party ideology. Pence shows Trump respects those concerns and is happy to have his lieutenant be a dyed in the wool conservative.
Government experience – Mike Pence brings to the table something Trump lacks without question: time in government. While many in the Republican Party want someone new, someone refreshing, someone to get into the White House and savage the status quo, many also worry that a candidate with no government experience is risky. Some look back at the Obama presidency and think that part of the problem was elected a man with very little experience to be president. And by any metric, Obama in January 2009 has vastly more government experience than Donald Trump. Pence’s time in Congress—serving in the majority and the minority, on multiple key committees, and in leadership—is one that brings tremendous talent to the ticket. He left Congress in January 2013, meaning many of his former colleagues are still serving, immediately creating avenues which he can connect with Capitol Hill. His time as governor further fills out the bona fides of a ticket in serious need of capacity when it comes to public sector executive experience and inter-branch relations. While Trump brings the private sector experience, it is Pence who delivers the public sector finesse.
Campaign experience – The 2016 presidential race will be the eighth campaign Pence has run as a candidate. He understands grassroots organization, campaign strategy, fundraising, campaign organization, messaging, advertising—all the things Trump himself lacks. Running for office is difficult and nothing makes it easier than experience—and experience winning. In this context Pence is a proven winner. He has won in landslides (some of his later Congressional races) and in nailbiters (his first big run for Congress in 2000 and his run for governor in 2012). He’s also been a proven fundraiser, raising over $13 million in his 2012 bid for governor and in his now defunct bid for re-election raised nearly $10 million. These talents are sorely needed in the Trump campaign as reports of disorder, disorganization, lax fundraising, and meager to non-existent campaign operations continue to be revealed.
Saving Indiana – A Vice Presidential candidate is not always able to deliver his home state (see John Edwards and Paul Ryan for examples); however, Indiana is seen as a competitive state in 2016. Obama won the state by about one percent in 2008 and lost it by over 10 percent in 2012. Hillary Clinton has identified Indiana as a key state to target campaign resources toward, and given Obama’s 2012 underperformance, having a native son on the Republican ticket may put the Hoosier state and its 11 electoral votes out of reach for Clinton.
Light on the baggage – Mike Pence offers the ticket something the standard bearer lacks, as did the two finalists for the VP slot, Gingrich and Christie. Pence has very little personal baggage. He is married—to his first wife—and a proud father. By all accounts he is a good family man and a religious guy. For a ticket that badly needs the support of social conservatives, Bible Belt voters, and Americans with traditional values, Pence helps speak to those audiences as much with his stump speech as with his story. For a Republican, and especially a Republican like Trump, a running mate who espouses Christian values and lives them in his family life is something invaluable in 2016.
Controversial policy stances – While Pence’s social conservative views will help Donald Trump lure Republicans toward having faith in the ticket, that appeal is not universal. Some conservatives lambasted Pence for walking back controversial “Religious Freedom” legislation in 2015 because of pressure from Indiana’s business community. Some conservatives saw him as soft or selling out, unwilling to take a stand on principle. However, while his positions are controversial among conservatives, some of his stances—including his initial signing of the religious freedom legislation—anger voters on the left and even in the middle. His views seem out of step with the majority of Americans on abortion, climate change, LGBT issues, and immigration policy. As evidence of how some of Pence’s views play with the public, upon Trump’s official Twitter announcement of his VP pick, the Clinton campaign posted a video attacking Pence as being out of step with the average American. While his conservative bona fides may or may not be embraced by the Right, his long voting record and public position taking could come back to bite him—and Trump.
Narrow demographic appeal – The Trump-Pence ticket badly needs to make inroads into the insufficient coalition Mitt Romney assembled in 2012. Thus far, the Trump-only ticket has done the opposite, further alienating millennials, Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans and women—among other groups. In order to be competitive in 2016, the Trump-Pence ticket must appeal to these groups, not repeating Romney’s performance, but outdoing it. It is unclear, given his demographic characteristics, experience, policy positions and ideology, how Pence would appeal any differently than does Donald Trump or did Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan. Romney won 44 percent of women, 37 percent of voters under 30, 27 percent of Latinos, 26 percent of Asian Americans, and 6 percent of African Americans. Voters who felt abortion should be legal made up 6 in 10 people; Romney won a mere 31 percent of their support. Of the 65 percent of 2012 voters who supported legal status for illegal immigrants, Romney won only 37 percent. These demographics and issues had much to do with Romney’s defeat four years ago, and there is very little about the Trump-Pence ticket that leads one to believe they can turn that around.
Saving Indiana is not enough – One of the benefits Pence brings to the ticket is likely securing Indiana and its 11 electoral votes for the Republican ticket. That is good news for GOP, but it is not a path to victory. Securing Indiana helps Trump-Pence hold the 2012 map, but in order to win, the Republican ticket must win back several large states that threw their support to Obama in 2012. For perspective, if Indiana stays Republican, Trump-Pence could flip Florida, Ohio, Nevada, and Iowa and still lose the election. It is true, running mates are rarely expected to turn an Electoral College map upside down, but in 2016, Republicans need exactly that, as they start the race with a serious electoral vote disadvantage. Pence might save Indiana, but the ticket needs to do a lot more to avoid defeat.
Foreign policy experience – Pence has more foreign policy experience than does Donald Trump. That is undeniable. However, that is also not a difficult hurdle to overcome when the party’s standard bearer lacks any foreign policy experience. Pence did serve on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and that gave him exposure to many of the key issues during his time in Congress. One challenge for the ticket is that Pence voted in favor of the Iraq War authorization—a vote Trump attacks Clinton for quite frequently. However, beyond the committee assignment, Pence has had little experience with foreign policy issues and has largely been divorced from them during his four years as governor. This would not necessarily be a deal breaker in another election, but given Trump’s lack of knowledge and experience in this space and the increasing seriousness of foreign policy crises across the world, voters may prefer someone with great experience than this ticket offers. This lack of experience is particularly highlighted when the two tickets are compared, given Clinton’s experience both in the Senate and as Secretary of State.
Election 2016 entered a new phase today as Donald Trump chose his running mate, a decision often heralded as a candidate’s first major decision. While Governor Pence offers much to the ticket to fill in some of the gaps that exist in Trump’s record, time will tell whether Pence’s shortcomings do any harm to the GOP ticket.