Governor Mike Pence is thought to be the winner of Tuesday night’s US vice presidential debate. Some believe this is good news for Donald Trump: his running-mate pulling out a win may help to cushion his sharp drop in the polls since the first presidential debate. But personally, I think Pence’s success has further highlighted the Republican’s deep failures as a candidate.
Overall, it was an underwhelming debate – its averageness most likely exacerbated by how outrageous the rest of the election cycle has been in comparison. The number of viewers was estimated at just 37.2m, the smallest audience since 2000 for a vice presidential debate. (Such low viewership helps confirm that America’s electorate – and indeed the rest of the world – are much more interested in the personalities at the top of the tickets than they are in the election as a whole.)
As the Wall Street Journal’s Randy Yeip noted over the summer, “while some [vice presidential candidates] generate positive feelings within the party, many don’t appear to influence the outcome”. And looking at their VP picks, it seems neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton was looking to shake up that sentiment.
While governor Pence and senator Tim Kaine – Clinton’s running mate – may hold some controversial views (both being on the “far-right” of their respective parties when it comes to abortion), they are conventional, stable choices who, up until Tuesday night, allowed almost all the attention to remain on the presidential nominees themselves.
Despite being underwhelming, I’d bet many voters felt refreshed watching two grown-ups on stage. Policies and governing practices were actually addressed and debated, all in a fairly respectful manner. Kaine shot plenty more “zingers” Pence’s way, though the extent to which they were clearly pre-meditated and rehearsed certainly grated on listeners’ ears. In the end, Kaine’s attempt to be forthright and dominant turned many off, as his constant interruptions made Pence seem far more calm and resilient by comparison.
It’s thought that it was Pence’s demeanour and style that won him the debate. That strikes me as true, but hard to believe, given that the same thing was said about Trump as he swept up states during the primaries – and their styles couldn’t have been more different. Perhaps both the calm and loud approaches can work, if done correctly. And for a while now, Trump has been taking “loud” to a new level; the humour he showed in the primary debates has turned to sarcasm, his boldness has turned into brashness, and his messaging (ugly messaging, but on-point to his supporters nonetheless) into ramblings.
There have been few reasons to compliment Trump throughout his campaign, but it was undeniable, for a while at least, that the man had presence and that his performances had style. Pence’s performance on Tuesday night was a blunt reminder of how far Trump has fallen from this comparative advantage.
Both Pence and Trump have now put forward the same views on the same platform. The former won comfortably, and the latter lost badly. I am no advocate of Trumpism, and have no desire to see his anti-trade, anti-immigrant, pro-state platforms gain traction. But it would be silly – and dangerous – to deny that this kind of ideology can win in debates.
Pence has proven that the dysfunction of the Republican Party’s new platform lies with the messenger, not the message itself. It’s a disappointing realisation for all those hoping Trump would seize the day; a disastrous realisation for all of us who hoped Trumpism would fall with Trump.