Mike Pence Straddles The Line Between Unknown And Unpopular

He is probably Donald Trump's pick for VP. It probably doesn't matter.
Donald Trump greets Mike Pence during a campaign rally in Indiana on Tuesday.
Donald Trump greets Mike Pence during a campaign rally in Indiana on Tuesday.
Tasos Katopodis/AFP/Getty Images

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump’s options for his running mate were, as one headline writer put it, a choice between “the unpopular or the unknown.” His reported pick for vice president, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, manages to combine the two.

Pence remains basically an unknown outside his home state of Indiana. While 5 percent of American voters rate him favorably and 8 percent rate him unfavorably, 86 percent don’t have any opinion of the governor at all, according to a July CBS survey. Just 7 percent of Republican Party voters view him favorably, while 6 percent have a negative opinion and the rest are unsure.

A recent McClatchy-Marist survey found Pence slightly better known but somewhat more disliked, with 12 percent of Americans rating him favorably, 21 percent unfavorably and 68 percent not sure what they think. Republican voters’ opinions were more evenly split, with 15 percent viewing him favorably and 15 percent rating him unfavorably.

Pence’s relative anonymity puts him in the company of past VP picks, many of whom were far from national figures, as FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten notes. Although he is far less controversial than some other potential Trump choices ― such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ― Pence would also be one of the least-liked VP nominees since at least 1976.

Harry Enten/FiveThirtyEight

A Morning Consult survey conducted last weekend found that Pence’s selection would likely be a wash for the GOP ticket, with 12 percent of voters saying it would make them more likely to back Trump, 12 percent saying it would make them less likely, and the remaining three-quarters saying either that it would have no impact or that they weren’t sure.

Choosing Pence might not make much difference even in Indiana, where polls already show Trump comfortably ahead. While Barack Obama won the state in 2008, it has gone Republican in every other presidential election since 1968.

But within his home state, the Indiana governor is a polarizing figure. Voters there are evenly split in their views of Pence’s gubernatorial record, according to a May survey conducted by NBC News, The Wall Street Journal and Marist University.

In 2013, Pence was generally well-liked by Indiana residents, scoring a 52 percent favorable rating in a poll from Howey Politics Indiana. Then his ratings slid precipitously in the wake of a national controversy over the state’s “religious freedom” law, which would have allowed businesses to refuse service to LGBT customers on religious grounds. An April 2015 HPI poll found his favorable rating down to just 35 percent.

“I’ve been covering Indiana politics for three decades, and I don’t recall a sitting governor experiencing that kind of decline over this short period of time like we’ve seen here,” HPI publisher Brian Howey said last year.

Both electoral precedent and current polling suggest that most vice presidential nominees do relatively little to help or hurt their tickets.

Fewer than one-third of undecided voters this month said that the choice of vice presidential nominee would be very important to their presidential vote, according to YouGov. In fact, they ranked it nearly dead last in their list of priorities.


Historically, vice presidential nominees have sometimes failed even to capture their home states, let alone put the ticket over the top.

“Our analysis suggests that presidential candidates have at least three times the influence on vote choice as the vice presidential candidate,” political scientists Kyle Kopko and Christopher Devine wrote in April. “In order for a running mate to help a candidate on a national scale, he or she must be exceedingly popular; in order to hurt, the VP must be tremendously unpopular. By and large, neither happens.”

Pence would seem unlikely to prove the exception ― a fact that Trump himself acknowledged earlier this week.

“History has said nobody ever helps,” Trump told The Washington Post on Monday. “I’ve never seen anybody that’s helped.”

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