The overall margin was 48/42 in Pence’s favor, but this is the number that matters:
Sixty-two percent of Republicans said Pence’s performance made them more likely to vote for Trump. If the debate helped at all, that’s probably where it helped the most, by convincing some Trump-skeptic GOPers who have been holding out on supporting the ticket that there’ll be a steady hand close to the wheel if Trump wins.
The numbers below are interesting, though. Never underestimate the power of sheer likability. Pence was the more likable candidate last night so he won, even though it was Kaine who scored higher on understanding the issues and much higher on who better defended his running mate:
The sample was 41D/30R, so don’t read too much into Kaine’s “issues” advantage — but do appreciate just how wide the likability gap was. Even among a Democratic-leaning group, Kaine’s obnoxious interruptions made Pence seem the more appealing of the two.
Jake Tapper made an insightful comment after the debate to the effect that Pence had won the night but he might not have won the week, by which Tapper meant that Democrats would have a field day with Pence’s many, many, many denials of controversial Trump comments in the past. Kaine brought up one dubious Trump statement after another — accurately, for the most part — whereupon Pence calmly denied that Trump had ever said any such thing. That drumbeat of lies worked wonders in the moment to reassure viewers that Trump wasn’t the wild man Kaine was portraying him as. It might not work as well in the aftermath. Jonah Goldberg:
[Pence] was not very effective in defending Donald Trump. And I think that’s why in the long run tonight’s debate wasn’t very helpful for the Trump campaign. Over and over again, Pence simply denied that Trump had said any of the inconvenient, indefensible, inappropriate things that Trump has said.
That means the Trump campaign will very likely repeat the disaster of the first presidential debate. Trump lost that debate narrowly – more narrowly than Pence won tonight – but Trump was devastated in the post-debate spin wars. Pence’s denials will be fact checked all week, and that will hurt Trump. Because, for the most part, all of the Trump greatest hits Kaine brought up were accurate. That won’t help the campaign, though it will help Pence in 2020. In fact, if the story line becomes “Pence couldn’t defend Trump,” I fully expect Trump to publicly insult Pence in the next few days as punishment.
Imagine Pence’s predicament in preparing for this debate, knowing that there were literally dozens of different dubious Trump remarks over the years that Kaine could toss at him and force him to answer for. At some point in the prep process, it seems, Pence gave up trying to master responses for each particular statement and opted to deny that Trump had ever said any such thing regardless of whether he had or not. It was, said Michael Brendan Dougherty, “one of the most avant garde performances in political history,” with Pence’s unflappable lies having the effect of making it seem as though Kaine rather than Trump was the one with the wild imagination that had generated so many dubious ideas.
It worked in the moment, but will it work going forward? Liam Donovan argued this morning that Democratic ads fact-checking Pence’s denials about Trump won’t work. It’s much more effective to simply point out that “Trump said X,” he noted, than to point out that Mike Pence lied in claiming that Trump never said X, so why bother doing it? Just stick to “Trump said X” attack ads. I don’t know about that, though. Watch the new Clinton ad below and see how her team did. If viewers really did come away from the debate last night believing that Tim Kaine is a liar and that Trump never said the awful things imputed to him, Democrats obviously need to disabuse them of that and convince them that Pence was the one who was lying. I think there’s value independently too in pointing out that Trump’s own running mate, presented with some of his worst excesses, evidently felt his best option was to lie than to try to defend them. That suggests that Pence agrees that they’re indefensible. That’s a more damning indictment of Trump than self-interested criticism from the other party is.
Exit question via David Frum: Did Pence’s strategy last night point to a broader post-Trump strategy for the GOP, namely, pretending as though Trump never happened? The hallmark of the GOP leadership in Congress is politely ignoring ideas that make their base happy, starting with tighter borders and economic protectionism. Why wouldn’t they follow the same approach in trying to move past Trump?