Donald Trump’s supporters hope running mate Mike Pence’s powerful performance at the vice presidential debate will reset a race that has been trending away from the GOP over the course of the last week.
Trump surrogates and political experts say there are reasons Tuesday’s encounter might matter more than running mate showdowns in the past.
“Of course, Trump’s been up and down and up and down, and now, I think, he can begin an ascent toward Election Day because the issues … reflect the concerns of the American people.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who was an early backer of Trump, said Wednesday on “The Laura Ingraham Show” that Pence could help the Republican nominee rebound from a week of bad press following his debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“It could be a pivotal point,” he said. “Of course, Trump’s been up and down and up and down, and now, I think, he can begin an ascent toward Election Day because the issues … reflect the concerns of the American people. Nobody is protecting their interests.”
Political experts generally agree that vice presidential candidates have little or no impact on the outcome of presidential races. But Kyle Kopko, a political scientist at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, said an exception might be when so many voters harbor doubts about candidates at the top of their respective tickets.
“It’s possible,” he said. “I’d have to look at the data. The conditions are ripe for the vice presidential debate to mean more than vice presidential debates normally mean.”
Kopko, co-author of “The VP Advantage: How Running Mates Influence Home State Voting in Presidential Elections,” agreed with many observers that Democrat Tim Kaine appeared over-scripted and too eager to interrupt.
“Pence on the other hand, I think, looked really well … so who knows?” he said.
But Kopko said the debate is unlikely to dramatically move the needle. The one area where the Indiana governor could have made the most difference is in locking down Republicans reluctant to back Trump.
“For voters who are looking for an excuse for voting for Trump because they have reservations, Mike Pence could be that reason,” he said.
Christopher Devine, a University of Dayton political science professor and the book’s co-author, agreed. Pence’s performance “could be enough to bring them home,” he said. But he added that many of those voters likely would find their way to Trump one way or another by Election Day.
“We do tend to look for a rationale that confirms our original position,” he said.
Devine said the problem for Trump and Pence is that post-debate media coverage does as much or more as the debate itself to shape public opinion. And much of the media narrative has focused on perceptions that Pence was unwilling or unable to defend Trump’s more controversial statements.
St. Louis University School of Law professor Joel Goldstein, an expert on the vice presidency, recalled the 1988 vice presidential debate. He said Republican Dan Quayle actually delivered a strong performance that night. But it was Democrat Lloyd Bentsen’s line — “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” — that dominated coverage.
In much the same way, Goldstein said, the media have focused on Kaine’s repeated attacks on Trump and Pence’s refusal to answer them. In the end, that may be more important than Pence’s strong overall performance, he aid.
“Pence may have helped himself — but did he really help Trump?” Goldstein said.
Devine said people who actually saw the debate, though, likely came away impressed by Pence — a figure many were getting to know for the first time. What they saw was a calm, even-keeled performance by a candidate who was both “versatile” and in command of facts, Devine said.
Pence likely was “disarming” to even Democratic-leaning viewers who tuned in expecting the worst.
“I didn’t expect him to be as good as he was last night,” he said.
Goldstein said the debate comes between two events that will impact the race much more.
“It’s going to get sandwiched between the presidential debates,” he said. “You’ve got another presidential debate in five days. The shelf life of the vice presidential debate is relatively short because whatever happens is going to be subsumed by what happens Sunday.”