Chris Christie must be wondering what he has to do to get the national recognition he feels he deserves. By choosing Indiana governor Mike Pence as his running mate, Donald Trump bypassed the bombastic New Jersey governor and decided to make sure his campaign remains all about himself. Pence reportedly bested two outsized figures—Christie and Newt Gingrich—who were among the few Republicans who don’t publicly or privately see the Trump campaign as an ad libbed adventure to nowhere. Christie or Gingrich would have amplified Trump’s most prominent characteristics, forming the most belligerent running mate tandem in American history.
Instead, the nominee-in-waiting has decided to go with a partner who, to put it kindly, will not dominate a big stage. Pence was introduced to the nation last spring as the driving force behind Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which made it permissible to discriminate openly against LGBT individuals in Indiana. Pence tried to defend the act but a backlash forced him to reverse course after a chaotic week in which the governor came off looking like he was hardly ready for prime time.
If you wanted to write a primer on how to look evasive and incompetent on national television, you could start with Pence’s March 2015 appearance with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos:
So what value does Mike Pence bring to the ticket besides being slow-footed, dull and out of step with the country on issues that matter to the diverse electorate outside the Republican base? Well for starters, he’s slow-footed, dull and out of step with the country on issues that matter to the diverse electorate outside the Republican base. This addresses Trump’s most urgent political and personal needs. Pence offers the reassurance of a true believer with Washington experience to Republicans who doubt Donald Trump is a real conservative and who are still agitating behind the scenes to take a stand against Trump’s nomination when the roll is called next week. And he poses no challenge to Trump’s ability to dominate the media for the next three-plus months. Trump/Christie or Trump/Gingrich would have set up a potential clash of egos. Pence is more likely to be quiet and do as he is told.
Trump’s choice serves to illustrate—again—how his campaign cannot be understood in conventional political terms. While it is not unprecedented for a nominee who is having trouble securing his base to select a running mate with appeal to the party, you generally want to find someone who can offer something to a broader constituency or at least who can bring electoral benefits in a key state. But Indiana is a Republican state—and Pence isn’t even popular there. Trump lifted him out of a tight race for re-election where he was struggling with independent voters and having difficulty keeping up with his opponents’ fundraising following a less-than-stellar term in office.
So Pence does not bring a national or regional electoral advantage to the ticket. He does not have a strong governing record. He has not demonstrated leadership skills. He is slow on his feet with the press and will have difficulty defending his running mate’s mercurial turns. He is not particularly interesting. He doesn’t balance the standard bearer’s race or gender. His positions and record will not appeal to the independent voters and weak Democrats that Trump needs to reach.
But he will not stand in the way of Donald Trump’s ego. In selecting Pence, Trump reasserted that the campaign will continue to be all about Trump. And if Trump’s worst case scenario should unfold, Pence may help to move Indiana into play—for Hillary.