Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate who wants to build a border wall, ban Muslim immigration and take a match to international trade deals, went to Indiana to find his running mate.
In the most consequential decision of Trump’s campaign so far—who would succeed him in office should he win the White House and become incapacitated or worse—the former reality TV show host and branding whiz picked neither flash nor sizzle.
He picked Mike Pence.
The Indiana governor, who has managed to irritate nearly all the major factions of the Indiana Republican Party since assuming his current office, checks many boxes for Trump.
He's substantive. A former chairman of the Republican Study Committee who served on the foreign affairs and judiciary committees in the House, he understands policy and where the levers of power are in Washington. Both are areas where Trump has said he needs help.
On the campaign trail, the silver-haired, buttoned-down conservative looks the part and sounds it, too. After logging a dozen years in Congress, including a stint in Republican leadership, Pence is practiced at speaking many words without saying much of anything—the kind of political correctness at its most banal form that is a prized skill on both sides of the aisle in Washington.
The choice of Pence—which split Trump's family and his top advisers—runs counter to the New York billionaire's brand as a brash outsider, but brings him closer to the center of the party that he's been inching toward for the past two months.
Trump's other two finalists—former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—were better emotional matches for Trump. While Pence endorsed one of Trump's rivals in the primary, Christie and Gingrich vigorously defended the New York billionaire and traveled with him on the campaign trail. They've consulted with him on political decisions and, like Trump, delight in the kinds of enthusiastic and combative displays that Trump prizes, and also views as a key to success.
But it's unlikely that either would have been greeted with the kind of warmth that Pence's pick elicited from current members of Congress. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has repeatedly questioned Trump's campaign, said he "can think of no better choice" than Pence. Florida's U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, who is skipping the Republican convention after losing 66 of the 67 counties to Trump in his home state's presidential primary, called Pence "rock solid" and a "great pick."
“It shows he’s trying to fix his Washington D.C. problem,” Steve Schmidt, who was a top strategist for 2008 nominee John McCain, said about Trump's choice. “From a media perspective, he's not as good of a communicator as Gingrich or Christie. But he's a 12-year member of Congress, and a member of Republican leadership."
The pick is also the most difficult one for Hillary Clinton's campaign. The presumptive Democratic nominee's staff would have relished the opportunity to highlight off-message outbursts from Gingrich and Trump on any given day. Instead, they're reduced to the more mundane tactic of using Pence's record to suggest Trump's ticket is too conservative for the moderate voters remaining to be persuaded.
"It's the right strategic pick," said Mike Feldman, a top adviser to Democratic nominee Al Gore in 2000. "Pence is safer and, more importantly, signals a more intentional approach to the campaign. And to my mind, Trump needs that if he wants to have a shot."
By nearly every definition, Pence is a career politician. He considered running for president this year, and, if he did, it's not hard to imagine him being steamrolled by Trump with the exact same criticisms about low energy and poor approval ratings that he used to doom Jeb Bush and Scott Walker.
One of Trump's signature campaign anecdotes—about Carrier Corp. eliminating 1,400 jobs at its Indianapolis plant, and moving production to low-wage Mexico—happened under Pence's watch. And Pence is a major advocate for free-trade deals that Trump holds up at the scapegoat for lost jobs and blames for the economic frustration weighing on many Americans. Pence has backed the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, all of which Trump has said he'd like to rewrite or eliminate.
"The reality is, if Indiana's farmers and food processors are to compete successfully for opportunities ushered into the 21st century, they need free trade and open access to growing global markets," Pence said in 2001 from the House floor claiming that in Indiana, post-NAFTA, "the volume of U.S. corn exports to Mexico has nearly tripled."
If Pence is the anti-Trump, he's also an avatar of the two types of Republicans who have given Trump the most grief over the past year: The Republican governors who were most critical of Trump on the campaign trail (and who were the easiest for Trump to vanquish), and the Republican leaders in Washington who have refused to fully embrace the titular head of their party.
"He's a staunch conservative," New York Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox said about Pence. "Trump has said it's not the conservative party, it's the Republican Party. So to have Mike Pence, who is really trusted by conservatives, out there campaigning, that's a very normal kind of thing."
Indeed, Trump's choice has plenty of historical precedent. Richard Nixon picked Spiro Agnew because of the large conservative following behind the then-Maryland governor. Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan four years ago helped excite a base that had questions about the top of the ticket.
Some view the box-checking impulse of the Pence selection as dangerously off-message. when it comes to Trump's campaign, he's succeeded by precisely turning history and tradition on its head. He operates with a shoe-string staff, his campaign is doing relatively little work in traditional battleground states, he isn't running any television ads. There's been nothing normal about Trump.
That's why many of Trump's loyalists wanted him to pick Gingrich, who, at 73 years old, is still viewed as a revolutionary in many conservative circles. The former House speaker can be unpredictable, but in many of the same ways that have helped lift Trump's campaign. His time as speaker includes passing welfare reform and balancing the federal budget. That gives him knowledge of the Capitol, and a track record of how to come out on the winning side of pitched legislative battles.
On the other hand, some top Trump aides worried about how long the chumminess between Gingrich and Trump would last. Trump revels in being smartest man in the room, aides say, and that dynamic may be more difficult to preserve over time with a constant stream of suggestions and ideas from Gingrich. The Georgian is a brilliant man in his own right, and likes to make that clear.
The choice of Pence—notwithstanding the chaotic selection process—is the clearest example yet of Trump's seriousness about professionalizing his campaign. Paul Manafort, a veteran political strategist and the chairman of the campaign, has been promising Republican activists for months that Trump would appear more presidential. Instead, Trump's eagerness to dominate headlines has resulted in recent outbursts in which he defended a tweet that was widely panned as anti-Semitic. After Clinton was rebuked by the FBI for her handling of classified e-mails as secretary of state, Trump earned headlines for refusing to back down from his praise of Saddam Hussein, saying the former dictator who suppressed dissent and financed terrorism deserved credit for killing terrorists.
Bringing order has been a fitful process. Manafort, along with Trump's children, seized control after Corey Lewandowski, the former campaign manager who encouraged Trump's brashness, was fired. They've brought in more communications staff to help Hope Hicks, who, in her first political campaign, was handling all media requests. Trump has given a handful of speeches in recent months using a teleprompter, which he fears makes him boring, but also keeps him on script.
The campaign's fundraising operation is slowly—finally—making progress. The campaign says it is collecting millions of dollars in small donations, the fuel of true grassroots efforts. And Trump, who largely self-financed his primary campaign, is adding more fundraising stops to his schedule. In the Hamptons earlier this month, Trump used the event to poll his well-heeled crowd of about 50 financiers about who they thought he should pick as a running mate.
Still, Trump had to be convinced about picking Pence. But that he even was able to be convinced was reassuring in itself to conservative activists and the party's establishment.
"He appeals to a different side of the party," Tom Mechler, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, said about Pence. "It sends a very strong message for what's important to Trump. If there is a lingering concern, I think that is off the table as of today."