Donald Trump has named Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate. The presumptive Republican candidate confirmed the choice in a tweet.
The news might come as a surprise to some, as the name bubbled to the surface only in the last few weeks. Pence, however, was my pick back in April.
The selection of Pence demonstrates something important about how constrained Donald Trump’s political choices really are. His candidacy is based on the premise that he is beholden to no one and that he is a powerful person capable of imposing his will through sheer force of personality.
This is nothing more than theater. Not only is Trump constrained by normal political forces, he is perhaps uniquely constrained among presidential candidates by the lack of unity within the Republican Party – disunity he helped create.
Pence was, in fact, one of very few people that Trump could name even though the candidate seems to have more affinity for personalities that project Trump’s vision of strength through aggression – like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
To understand the choice of Pence, let’s consider the constraints on Trump.
Firming up the base
Most voters are partisans, and most partisan voters remain loyal to their party in the voting booth. Pundits will often observe that a plurality of voters claim to be “independent,” but most such voters are actually partisans in disguise, as political scientists discovered long ago.
Most self-professed independents will admit to having leanings, and these “leaners” are just as loyal in their voting patterns as other partisans. Presidential elections are mostly contests over the small sliver of the electorate that consists of true independents, which is generally between 10 percent and 15 percent of the electorate, based on results from the American National Election Studies survey each election.
Holding onto one’s own party is normally taken for granted.
But not this year. Plainly stated: Trump doesn’t think he can count on the Republican base.
There is no better demonstration of the disunity within the Republican Party than the fact that George F. Will has left the party, and instructed Republicans to “grit their teeth” during a Hillary Clinton presidency, hoping to defeat her in 2020.
If Trump cannot hold the Republican Party together, then he has no chance of defeating Clinton.
Presidential candidates have looked at vice presidential nominations through many lenses, such as the opportunity to turn a swing state or complement policy strengths. But Trump had a different problem to solve with his veep pick – uniting the Republican Party around him, including the establishment he has scorned in the past.
Bringing the party together
There are two factions of the party that have been leery of Trump — the movement conservatives and the Chamber of Commerce faction.
Movement conservatives, who are generally motivated by issues such as abortion and gay marriage, have every reason to distrust a man with no connection to their movement and a history of taking stances in opposition to theirs, seeming to take positions on abortion that are most politically convenient at the moment, however fleeting that moment may be.
Commerce types want governance of a predictable form because business in general detests uncertainty. Meanwhile, Trump claims his very unpredictability on the world stage as an asset.
Pence is a movement conservative who, unlike Trump, has solid credentials on abortion and same-sex marriage and trade. He has legislative experience from the House of Representatives and currently serves as a governor, giving him executive experience, which Trump lacks.
Since Pence was not involved in the debt ceiling showdowns that have led to tension between the Tea Party and the Chamber of Commerce since the 2010 election, he has the ability to unite the factions. In other words, Pence is trusted by everyone who distrusts Trump, even when they don’t trust each other.
Vice presidents, of course, have little formal authority.
As Vice President John Nance Garner once said, the vice presidency was worth little more than a bucket of warm piss. But the accuracy of that evaluation is in the president’s hands. If the president delegates authority to the vice president, the position gains power – as was the case with Vice President Dick Cheney.
Trump has little interest in the minutiae of governance. Pence could very well find himself in a position of power by default. Trump is signaling to the Republican faithful that he will give that sort of role to Pence, an assurance that he is constrained to make by a party in disunity.