Tomorrow’s vice presidential debate most likely won’t capture the voters’ imagination, and it will certainly not draw as many viewers as last week’s presidential debate, but it could still play a meaningful tactical role.
The recent history of vice presidential debates bears that out.
- In 1996, Adm. James Stockdale’s incoherence during the debate undermined the viability of Ross Perot’s third-party campaign.
- In 2000 and 2004, Dick Cheney’s manhandling first of Joe Lieberman and then John Edwards added to the gravitas of both George W. Bush campaigns, especially on national security.
- In 2012, Joe Biden’s strong performance against Paul Ryan helped stop the bleeding from Mitt Romney’s success in the first presidential debate against President Barack Obama.
I can’t predict who will be perceived as the winner of tomorrow’s faceoff, but I can project the portions of the electorate that Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine and Republican Gov. Mike Pence each will target.
Donald Trump’s selection of Pence of Indiana reflected a priority on unifying the GOP around cultural issues. Pence’s strongest profile is that of a conservative culture warrior.
In selecting Kaine of Virginia, Clinton has placed a priority on reaching out to swing voters. Kaine is a committed social-justice Catholic from a swing state. His electoral success has been predicated on bonding with conservative Democratic, moderate Republican and independent voters.
It’s no coincidence then that sharp shifts in public opinion underscore their selections as running mates. From 1966 until 2006, America was a center-right nation. For decades, Gallup Polls have shown there were twice as many conservatives as liberals among American voters. Roughly 40 percent of voters self-described as conservatives, about 20 percent as liberals and just about 40 percent as moderates.
Over the last decade, polling reveals that the moderate bloc has held, but liberals have grown to 25 percent, while conservatives have shrunk to 35 percent. This reflects the growth of minority, millennial, secular and highly educated professional women voters.
Consolidating each party’s base remains an essential ingredient for victory. Nevertheless, after factoring in independents who lean to one party or the other, a fully flexed GOP base would get Trump to between 42 and 45 percent of the electorate. Clinton’s Democrats, if mobilized, would hold a 45 to 47 percent share, leaving each party shy of 50 percent. This year, both parties are vulnerable to losing voters to the Libertarians, while Democrats have reason to fear the Green Party repeating Ralph Nader’s role in Al Gore’s 2000 defeat.
In tomorrow’s debate, Pence will probably be proficient in reassuring Republican voters on debt, deficit, taxes and regulations. Kaine will try to score points with millennial voters on issues like climate change and student debt, and with moderate independents on infrastructure and campaign finance reform, while addressing Hispanic concerns on immigration and health care.
Pundits will judge both candidates on style and hopefully substance, but their real impact will be on teamwork.
Clinton picked Kaine partly to supplement her drive to the center, whereas Pence calms the concerns of traditional conservatives and evangelicals for Trump. Neither Clinton nor Trump will be assured of victory until successfully pivoting to hold the vital center of American politics. The true victor of the vice presidential debate will be the candidate who best paves the road for his running mate to secure that strategic imperative.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.