It is now a received truth of punditry that vice presidential debates don’t matter. The humiliation Dan Quayle experienced at the hand of Lloyd Bentsen did not hand the presidency to Michael Dukakis, after all. But I think this year could be different.
The reason is fairly simple. For the critical swing constituency, the uncommitted, the question has become “which candidate do I dislike less?”
Most undecided people will make their choice (including the choice not to vote) based on a gut feel, a sense of the person they are choosing. And the vice president nominee can affect the gut feel for those who have no overwhelming preference. After all, the “team” image allows for the possibility that the running mate could moderate or leaven the dislike of the top of the ticket. I think this is particularly true for Pence, because Trump has never held political office and will obviously depend on advice from the Capitol Hill veteran Pence.
But in the case of Hillary Clinton, the dislike centers on issues of corruption, lying, and her unattractive personal presentation on television. Did Tim Kaine do anything to leaven these concerns?
It was obvious to even Chris Matthews that something was off about Tim Kaine during the vice presidential debate. Matthews thought him “desperate,” while John Podhoretz was more pointed: “programmed and testy and hectoring.”
Russ Vaughn’s characterization of Kaine as “a typical know-it-all, smug, smarmy liberal” was probably shared by most conservatives and not a few independents.
I think on balance, Pence came across as steady, nice, and well informed. Exactly what Trump needs for balance.
Kaine came across in a way that highlights, not balances, Hillary’s defects.