While we found it hard to call a winner in last night’s VP “interruptionfest”, others were quicker to point out that it was Trump who was the biggest beneficiary from last night’s debate. As the Hill noted overnight, Donald Trump got help from an unexpected quarter on Tuesday night as Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, delivered an uneven performance in the year’s sole vice presidential debate, adding that “stylistically at least, Trump’s vice presidential nominee, Mike Pence, was the clear winner of the encounter.” It notes that his superiority was especially clear in the early stages. Pence was steady and controlled in those crucial moments while Kaine interrupted and appeared overly aggressive, even to independent observers.
Bloomberg confirms as much noting that “Donald Trump’s weeklong slide in the presidential race started when he showed up to the first debate unprepared and spoiling for a fight. On Tuesday evening, Mike Pence helped slow it by doing the opposite.”
Calm and measured, Pence showed off his preparation for his vice-presidential showdown with Democrat Tim Kaine, fending off a slashing, interrupting opponent. The Indiana governor prepared for the debate “since the night he received the call from Mr. Trump,” a campaign aide told ABC News, enlisting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as Kaine’s stand-in during practice sessions last week.
A CNN poll agreed: 48% of voters who watched said Pence won the debate while 42% said Kaine won. In an Ohio focus group for CBS News by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, 22 participants said Pence won while just four said Kaine won, though when he asked how many would change their votes as a result, the answer was zero. Pence took up a larger share of the debate conversation than Kaine on Twitter and Facebook, the companies said.
Pence could have won the debate but failed Trump, said Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor and expert on the vice presidency at the St. Louis University School of Law. “Governor Pence’s way of defending Trump was to attack Clinton,” said Goldstein. “Kaine was making the point that what Trump has done is indefensible and even Pence can’t defend him.”
Kaine, chided by the moderator for interrupting Pence dozens of times, goaded his rival to defend Trump. “He’s asking people to vote for somebody he cannot defend,” Kaine, 58, said. Pence responded with serene head-shakes and mumbles of “that’s nonsense,” saying he was “happy to defend” Trump as a businessman rather than “a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton.”
Much of the early part of the vice presidential debate was taken up with squabbling over issues such as which side had run the most “insult-driven” campaign. The moderator, Elaine Quijano of CBS News, battled to keep the debate civil against steep odds. Pence, perhaps drawing on his experience of being a radio talk show host earlier in his life, appeared the more confident and controlled of the two candidates. By contrast, some of Kaine’s attacks had a canned quality, and he spoke over both Quijano and Pence repeatedly.
That said, the battle to shape public perception of debates is often won and lost in the 24 or 48 hours afterward rather than during the events themselves. Kaine’s central strategy of highlighting as many of Trump’s inflammatory statements as possible could pay off as the 90-minute debate gets reduced to sound bites in the hours and days to come.
An interesting observation was made by Bloomberg which noted that both figures were vastly overshadowed by their deeply unpopular celebrity running mates. (Kaine and Pence each mentioned their running mates by name more times than any other No. 2 candidates since the vice-presidential debates started in 1976, according to a transcript analysis.)
Bloomberg adds that Pence held command of Tuesday’s debate, coolly turning aside attacks with broad brush strokes while avoiding specific rebuttals to broadsides against the character of his running mate. While many Republicans would like Pence’s demeanor to serve as a blueprint for when Trump debates Clinton for a second time on Sunday, the contrast between the two Republicans remains unavoidable. “I feel like we now need a Pence-Trump debate on Russia. Because I’ve never heard such diverse views,” Brian Walsh, a former Senate Republican leadership aide, said on Twitter.
Much of the debate was spent focusing on Trump statements and policies. “I’m very, very happy to defend Donald Trump,” Pence insisted. “If he wants to take these one at a time, I’ll take them one at a time.” To which Kaine shot back that “‘More nations should get nuclear weapons.’ Try to defend that.” Pence jumped in: “Well, he never said that, Senator.” Kaine replied, “He absolutely said it. Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan.” Kaine made his point, but the debate moved on, and Pence, unlike when Trump seemed unmoored by Clinton’s attacks, seem largely unfazed by the exchange.
Hillary’s issues received less prominence: In a relatively brief exchange over the Clinton email controversy, Pence told Kaine that if either of their sons who serve in the Marines had handled classified information in the same way as the then-secretary of State had done, “they’d be court-martialed.”
In the immediate aftermath, Republican surrogates seemed happier than their Democratic counterparts with how things had gone in Farmville. Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta acknowledged in the post-debate spin room that Pence had been “smooth” but argued that the Republican had not enjoyed any campaign-changing moments.
As the Hill summarizes, Pence showed the kind of focus that was widely felt to be lacking in Trump’s own performance in his first clash with Clinton last week.
Will it be enough to push back the momentum in Trump’s favor? This is where the mainstream again finds fault with the Trump campaign: “Pence’s apparent victory is unlikely to change the trajectory of the race in a fundamental way. But it does at least turn the page after a miserable period for Trump. Now, much will hinge on the second Trump-Clinton bout, which takes place Sunday in St. Louis” the Hill wrote observing that Trump’s poll numbers have fallen over the eight days since his first presidential debate.
Still, it may be just the spark Trump needs ahead of this weekend’s just as important second debat: Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway claimed victory for Pence and told NBC News moments after the debate ended that her team had “lost count” of the number of times Kaine had interrupted. Kaine and the Democrats may take heart from the fact that the TV audience for the debate was widely expected to be significantly lower than the 51.4 million who tuned in to watch Vice President Biden take on the future Speaker, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in the equivalent event four years before.
In either case, even with last night’s unexpected boost for the Republican ticket, the future of the race is now back in Trump’s own hands, and in those of his opponent.