Mike Pence — Trump's Overlooked Stroke of Genius?

Mike Pence — Trump's Overlooked Stroke of Genius?

Why you should care

Because sometimes a political wingman can help way more than you’d think.

With the vice-presidential debate just a day away, Donald Trump is once again struggling. But few would say he is out for the count. One of the hidden reasons for the Donald’s buoyancy has been his underappreciated master stroke in choosing Mike Pence as his running mate. When Trump chose the Indiana governor in July, it was seen as a safe, vanilla pick — one that wouldn’t necessarily hurt or help him. Yet more than just being a safe base hit, Pence has delivered something that few in the mainstream media or elite coastal circles may appreciate: He has staved off a potential evangelical defection that could have cost Trump at least several points in the long run.

Indeed, shortly after Mitt Romney’s broadside against Trump in March, it wasn’t hard to find Christian conservatives worried about whether there was a fundamental character flaw that should lead them to stay at home and neither support Hillary Clinton nor Trump, the thrice-married former New York Democrat. But lately, evangelicals have taken to team Trump in a strong way — morphing from among the most skeptical of Trump during the primaries into some of his most ardent supporters heading into November 8, the Pew Research Center reports. He’s also being propped up in key swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida by groups such as the Faith & Freedom Coalition and its database of over 30 million “social conservatives.” Even Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, just fully endorsed Trump last month.

It’s that kind of halo effect that has helped frame the Indiana governor as an important foil to the perceived elitism of the Clintons — and the perfect complement to his own bombastic running mate.

Pence is self-effacing about his role, calling himself a “B-list celebrity” during a rally on Friday in York County that OZY’s Nick Fouriezos attended. But for more traditional conservatives like Jim Klinedinst, who attended that same rally, Pence is the reason that Trump can be trusted: “I just hope he pushes Trump on some things,” the 39-year-old adds. It’s that kind of halo effect, plus Pence’s unassuming humility at times, that has helped frame the Indiana governor as an important foil to the perceived elitism of the Clintons — and the perfect complement to his own bombastic running mate. “There have been a number of decisions people will question, but [Trump] really didn’t seem to make a mistake here,” says Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics.

Pence’s underappreciated role is similar to what Dick Cheney did for George W. Bush in 2000. Cheney may not have been a show horse, but in serious conservative circles he allowed a key block to lean into W’s shaky campaign and back the young governor. Fast-forward to this summer, where establishment support behind Trump remained shaky following the Republican National Convention. Who could forget Ted Cruz’s famous non-endorsement? But Pence helped soften the blow, and even turned the tide for Trump, including with Cruz. The NRA’s Ken Blackwell reportedly called Pence a “home run,” while House Speaker Paul Ryan said he could “think of no better choice.” It also hasn’t hurt that Pence has sometimes ignored Trump’s grudges and extended olive branches by endorsing Ryan, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte. Hard to imagine the prosecutorial Chris Christie or blunt Newt Gingrich brokering such peace deals.

Sure, Pence isn’t totally spotless as he enters tomorrow night’s debate against Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine. The evangelical has been unpopular over his stance on LGBT issues following his move last year to sign a religious-freedom bill that some felt discriminates against queer people. And while he’s been outperforming Kaine, by some measures, it hasn’t been by much: Pence was viewed favorably by 36 percent of respondents in a national Gallup poll in August, compared to 33 percent for Kaine.

Still, if the golden rule of playing second fiddle is to do no harm, Pence is relatively unblemished. He also bolsters Trump by indulging in the longings of conservatives who believe this reality-TV star is, in some ways, similar to the Hollywood actor who shook up Washington when America was being made great. “Ronald Reagan spoke the truth to the American people,” said Pence, a longtime Reagan conservative, at the Reagan Presidential Library last month, “just like Donald Trump has.” Whether a similar reality plays out for Trump will depend, in part, on how well Pence performs under the spotlight tomorrow night.

Nick Fouriezos contributed reporting.

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