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Mike Pence Tried to Be Normal in an Election That Isn’t

All while Tim Kaine threw every punch he could

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Getty Images

Who won the vice presidential debate? Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett have a different idea: It doesn’t matter. On the latest Keepin’ It 1600, the crew was more concerned with the narratives coming out of the debate than the “winner” and “loser.” Here are the themes that stood out to them the most.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Pence Only Reluctantly Defended Donald Trump

Jon Lovett: It was interesting how little Mike Pence wanted to engage with what Donald Trump has said, proposed, done, been accused of, or been proven to have said or done in the past. Any of it. He just shook his head, as if any of the things Tim Kaine was saying [Trump said] had never been said. Of course they were [said].

Tommy Vietor: And it was very noticeable that Pence was barely defending Trump. Shaking your head no on a split screen doesn’t really help you. I don’t know if that was because it’s impossible to defend these things that are on direct quotes, or if he wants to preserve himself, but it really stuck out.

Jon Favreau: I think Pence’s strategy was to debate like a generic Republican would’ve debated. A conservative Republican who believes in conservative Republican positions. He did it very adeptly, but the platform he’s defending and talking about bears no resemblance to the platform of the man he’s on the ticket with. And because there was that disconnect, he couldn’t defend anything Donald Trump said. He couldn’t defend any of Donald Trump’s positions. There was one point where he started attacking Hillary Clinton for a Russia reset. … Like, your running mate is in love with Vladimir Putin.

Kaine Stayed on the Attack

T.V.: Kaine had a strategy, and that was to bloody up Donald Trump. And he did it pretty well. He hit him on taxes, he hit him on Judge Curiel, he hit him on saying that [John] McCain isn’t a war hero. He hit him repeatedly about allowing countries to get nuclear weapons [and] his business dealings in Russia.

Pence is very slick and very polished, in many ways he is the anti-Trump, right? Republicans are going to make a big deal out of [Kaine’s] interrupting issue, but I think Kaine started a little rocky. The strategy of interrupting for him didn’t necessarily match who he is that well in the beginning, but I think over time it rattled Pence. He seemed frustrated. I think Kaine got done what he needed to get done. I don’t know if there’s a win or lose in a VP debate. It’s all about: What’s the spin coming out of this debate?

Pence Failed to Keep the Focus on Hillary Clinton

J.L.: But it doesn’t matter what people think of the interrupting. It doesn’t matter what people think of Mike Pence and Tim Kaine. It matters (a) who did a better job defending the person they’re supposed to represent, and (b) [for] shaping the stories that are to come over the next week. Mike Pence — we know this because the GOP accidentally posted its talking points about it in advance of the debate saying Mike Pence won, and one of the things they posted was that Mike Pence kept the focus on Hillary Clinton’s scandals.

J.F.: He didn’t do that.

J.L.: He did not succeed in doing that at all. In part because Mike Pence doesn’t care about what happens in this election, because Mike Pence is running in 2020.

J.F.: That made me think of why Pence wasn’t going too hard on Hillary’s alleged scandals. It was also a fail because it telegraphed to Kaine and Clinton all of the hits that they want Trump to use probably in the second debate. Because now they can prepare for just about every hit on Hillary for the next debate.

T.V.: The disconnect between the race that Pence is running and the race that Trump is running was also a huge disconnect in terms of their debate strategy, right? There was no Benghazi broadside. We got to emails in minute 81 and there was nothing about Bill Clinton’s infidelities. All of these things we’ve been talking about for the last week since Donald Trump got his ass handed to him didn’t come up. I don’t know if Mike Pence is going rogue, à la Sarah Palin, but it’s very noticeable. I think that’s going to be a strong argument to make for Democrats until the next debate on Sunday.

But VP Debates Don’t Swing Voters

J.F.: That point right there. There’s another one of these debates on Sunday with the two candidates, so this is not going to matter at all. I saw a CBS focus group say that they thought Mike Pence won, but zero said it would affect their vote at all. I think that sums up what usually happens with VP debates. I don’t think any VP debate has ever really mattered. That said, I think Kaine got a bunch of hits in, which is great.

J.L.: The people at the focus group saying win or lose — we should say if that’s what comes out of it, fine. Obviously, you’d rather have it say that Tim Kaine won the debate, but it actually doesn’t matter because it’s not about Tim Kaine winning. It’s about Hillary Clinton winning and I don’t think this changes anything, and [the Republicans] need to change things. I feel great.

T.V.: Gallup did [an] analysis in 2012 of what changes in debates. They looked at ’92, ’96, 2000, and 2008, and basically there’s a 1 percentage point move.