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Mike Pence Is Better Than Newt Gingrich, but Won’t Win Trump the Presidency

July 15, 2016, 8:09 PM UTC
Presumptive US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (R) and Indiana Governor Mike Pence (L) take the stage during a campaign rally at Grant Park Event Center in Westfield, Indiana, on July 12, 2016. / AFP / Tasos KATOPODIS (Photo credit should read TASOS KATOPODIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Tasos Katopodis — AFP via Getty Images

Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

The War on Terror has once again impacted the presidential campaign, this time forcing Donald Trump to postpone the formal announcement of his vice presidential pick. Nevertheless, a Trump tweet confirms what pundits have been predicting for the past two days: Trump’s vice president will be Mike Pence. This pick suggests that Trump is maturing as a candidate, looking ahead to the task of governing and building an administration that could work with Congress to enact major legislation.

Pence is a safe choice, someone capable of unifying the party, untainted by scandal, and an evangelical Christian known for his social conservatism on issues like abortion and gay marriage. He is also a seasoned political insider, having served 12 years in the House of Representatives, including two years as Republican conference chairman, the third most powerful leadership position in the majority party of the House, and one term as governor of Indiana.

If Trump had picked Newt Gingrich, it would have reinforced his political persona as a bomb-throwing outsider who wants to dismantle a corrupt and rigged establishment. A Trump-Gingrich ticket would have raised more concern as the election approached and voters thought twice about a pair of hotheaded populists taking the reins of power. By choosing a seasoned insider as his running mate, Trump should be able to reassure voters without losing his populist bona fides.

Pence will, at best, help Trump modestly on the electoral front. In the modern age of presidential elections, the vice presidential pick has rarely been a deciding factor in the campaign. Lyndon Johnson may have lifted John F. Kennedy above Richard Nixon in Texas in 1960, but geographic ticket-balancing has been on decline ever since. George W. Bush didn’t pick Dick Cheney because he needed to carry Wyoming (only three electors in the Electoral College, and had last voted Democratic in 1964), and Barack Obama didn’t pick Joe Biden to help him carry Delaware (three electors and last voted Republican in 1988). Bush and Obama both picked their vice presidents for the expertise in foreign affairs that they brought to the ticket. They were picks that would help the candidate govern, not picks that would help the candidate win the election.

As governor of Indiana, Pence may provide modest help in winning the state for Trump, but it is unlikely that this factored heavily in Trump’s calculations, even though Indiana is a must-win state for Republicans. Indiana was considered a leaning Republican state even before Trump announced that Pence would be his vice president, and Pence is not so overwhelmingly popular in Indiana that his inclusion on the ticket automatically swings the state to Trump. Pence was locked in what had promised to be a tough reelection campaign against Democratic challenger John Gregg. His maladroit handling of the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, first supporting the bill as protecting the rights of Christians who believed gay marriage was sinful, then retreating in response to heavy business lobbying to accept a revised bill that provided additional protections for the LGBT community against discrimination, did not win him friends on either side of the political aisle.

If Pence helps Trump electorally, the effects will be more diffuse—less focused on Indiana. Pence is a solid Midwesterner, a region that promises to be ground zero in this electoral contest, particularly the Rustbelt states. Pence will reassure voters in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, as well as Indiana, that one of their own will be a voice in the administration. Pence will also reassure evangelical Christians that Trump will be sensitive to their concerns.

Pence is not going to win the election for Donald Trump, but he will greatly assist Trump if Trump can beat Clinton in November. Pence is highly respected by Republican leaders in both chambers of Congress. Paul Ryan, who has been close to Pence since their time together in the House, has already endorsed the choice, saying, “I can think of no better choice for our vice presidential candidate.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell chimed in, saying the choice would be a “good move by Donald Trump,” virtually guaranteeing McConnell’s enthusiastic support for the ticket. Since the beginning of the search for a vice presidential candidate, Trump has indicated he wanted someone who could work with Congress and get things done. Mike Pence meets that criteria.