To paraphrase a musical icon gone all too soon, unlike books, black lives and albums, the vice presidential pick really doesn’t matter. However, like a sullen 12-year-old forced to go to his uncle’s wedding, America had to wait with bated breath to see exactly who Donald Trump picked to be his vice presidential nominee. And the presumptive GOP presidential nominee didn't disappoint, picking Mike Pence, Republican governor of Indiana. A man who will singularly do absolutely nothing for Trump’s chances to win the presidency but will galvanize Democratic voters who already are finding more ways to dislike Trump every day.
It’s important to note that the vice presidential pick for a major-party nominee has little actual impact on the outcome of an election. Historically, political science shows that a VP may amount to a 2-3 percent uptick in support in his or her home state at best. In recent years, that has been a wash. Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan and still lost Wisconsin. Barack Obama picked Joe Biden, but Delaware had been a safe blue state since the Reagan administration. Dan Quayle in 1988 and Sarah Palin in 2008 are the outliers: Quayle hurt Bush’s credibility, and Palin made Republicans more enthusiastic about McCain but alienated swing voters.
Even the conventional wisdom that the VP picks are a nod to the party base is a bit of a stretch. Joe Lieberman was not beloved by baseline Democrats in 2000, and nobody cared about Dick Cheney on the Republican side. If history tells us that the VP pick doesn’t make a difference (unless you’re a hockey mom from Alaska), why was Pence picked and what difference, if any, will he make?
Trump has said for months that he wanted a "government" guy as his vice presidential pick. Mike Pence served six terms in Congress and was elected governor of Indiana in 2012, so he fits that bill. Pence has the respect of many Republicans in Washington, D.C. (which is more than Trump can say at this point), and while he is not very popular in his home state, he can point to economic improvements in Indiana in his first term.
Perhaps most important in the selection of Pence as his running mate was the fact that Trump didn’t have much of a choice to begin with. Republicans who fancy themselves as having a future in national politics don’t want to be anywhere near the garbage fire that might be a Trump presidential bid.
Hot-ticket minority and female Republican elected officials know that being Trump’s running mate would ruin their credibility. So, essentially, Trump was down to a horrible case of political “F—k, Marry, Kill” with Chris Christie (New Jersey’s governor), Newt Gingrich (the former House speaker), Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Pence. Christie is still weighed down by his "bridge-gate" baggage; Gingrich is almost as much of a camera hog as Trump; and McChrystal ditched Trump at the altar after two pretty hot campaign dates. Much as I would have loved seeing the Donald line up all of these candidates Apprentice-style and fire them one by one until he was left with his decision (Chris, you’re fired; take your hostage memes and go home), Pence was increasingly his only viable option.
With Pence, Trump opens up a treasure trove of trouble politically that only comes with having a top-ticket candidate who has laid waste to any and all norms of political behavior. In a better year for Republicans, Pence would probably not make the Sweet 16 of VP picks, let alone the final choice. Pence’s main claim to fame is signing a “religious freedom” bill last year that would have legalized small-business discrimination against people who were gay, lesbian or transgender. The bill was so unpopular that the NCAA threatened to change the venue of the men’s Final Four if Pence didn’t back down. Some analysts were showing that Indianapolis alone could have lost millions in business and investment based on the policy. When Pence couldn’t sell the public on the stereotypical horrors of LaShawn and Samuel asking for phallic wedding cakes from small-town religious bakeries, he revoked the law.
However, that will just be the most obvious way in which Democrats go after him. Pence ran a horribly racist commercial back in the 1990s with a man dressed up like a stereotypical “Arab.” Pence was also a radio talk show host in the ’90s, which likely will provide hours and hours and years of opposition research for the camp of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to comb through.
The point being, the 2016 presidential race will, like almost every election over the last 20 years, come down to who is at the top of the ticket. Trump has managed to stay relatively close to Clinton in the popular vote, even if most analysts believe he’s going to get hammered in the Electoral College. No one is going to vote for or against Trump based on Pence, but picking a VP is one part of the job of being a major-party nominee that Trump hasn’t completely bastardized.
As for Pence, he was facing a tough re-election in Indiana this fall against Democrat John Gregg, whom he beat by less than 75,000 votes in 2012. Somewhere, Team Pence likely made the calculation that 1) Trump has a better chance of winning the presidency than Pence does of staying governor, or 2) it's better to lose on the national stage with Trump and position himself for 2020 than lose quietly in Indiana where no one will see or care. Either way, next week at the Republican Convention, Trump and Pence will have America’s undivided attention to make the case that they are the best to take America forward, at least until Friday, when Clinton announces her nominee.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.