UPDATE (July 15, 10:57 a.m.): Donald Trump has made it official, choosing Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate.
A wide variety of news outlets, led by Roll Call, are reporting that Republican Donald Trump plans to name Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate Friday. There’s some history of incorrect reporting on vice-presidential choices — Dick Gephardt turned out not to be John Kerry’s pick in 2004, for example — so these sources are hedging their reporting to various degrees. Betting markets price in about an 80 percent chance that Pence will be the pick, allowing an outside possibility of a last-minute surprise or change of heart on Trump’s behalf.
If the pick were Pence, I’d view it as the best choice Trump could have made from among a weak lot of finalists. That’s damning with faint praise to some degree, and I’ll highlight a couple of potential challenges with the pick later. But in Pence, Trump would basically be getting a “generic Republican”: a 57-year-old white man; the governor of a midsize, red-leaning state; someone with very conservative but otherwise conventionally Republican policy positions.
That’s probably a good thing, because a generic Republican at the top of the ticket would have a heck of a chance against Hillary Clinton, whose unpopularity would be record-breaking if not for Trump himself. The “fundamentals” of the campaign — Democrats seeking a third straight term to succeed a moderately but not overwhelmingly popular President Obama, amid a good-but-not-great economy — also point to an election that would be close if contested between typical candidates.
Of course, it won’t be Pence at the top of the ticket, and Trump — even after some recent gains — remains the underdog, according to the polls. Still, his calculation is different from Republican John McCain’s in 2008, when McCain made the high-risk pick of Sarah Palin. McCain, like Trump, trailed in the polls. Unlike Trump, however, that had less to do with McCain’s personal failings and more to do with the very challenging national environment for Republicans.1 McCain had every reason to shake things up, hoping to defy the national climate to win on the force of his and Palin’s personalities. Trump, conversely, would benefit from a return to normalcy and making the personalities of the race less important than voters’ feelings about the direction of the country.
Downsides to Pence? There isn’t a lot of electoral utility to the pick. As of early this afternoon, Trump already had an 84 percent chance to win Indiana, according to our polls-only forecast, meaning that Clinton would probably win it only in a national rout. According to our voter power index, a vote in Indiana is worth only 0.3 times as much as an average one elsewhere in the country, in terms of its likelihood of determining the Electoral College winner. By contrast, Virginia and Ohio — where possible Clinton VP picks Tim Kaine and Sherrod Brown reside — have a voter power index of 2.4 and 2.1, respectively.
For that matter, Pence isn’t especially popular in Indiana, having managed to alienate both liberals and conservatives with his handling of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which limited legal protections for LGBT residents of Indiana. Polls showed him only narrowly ahead of Democrat John Gregg in a race for a second term as governor. Pence will have to withdraw his name from the gubernatorial ballot if he’s Trump’s VP pick.
To a national audience, Pence is almost entirely unknown; this morning’s CBS News/New York Times poll put his favorability rating at 5 percent against 8 percent unfavorable, with 86 percent of registered voters either being undecided or not knowing enough about Pence to have an opinion. A Marist College survey, meanwhile, puts him at 12 percent favorable and 21 percent unfavorable. That would present some risk to Trump, because there would be a scramble between the news media and the campaigns to define Pence in the eyes of the electorate. Given Clinton’s greater staffing and financial resources, it’s possible that Pence could stumble out of the gate.
And yet, several of the alternatives reportedly on Trump’s VP shortlist, especially Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie, are both widely known and widely disliked by the general electorate. So if Pence isn’t quite a risk-free choice, he’d be better than one who was guaranteed to be unpopular.