Some media organisations declared Mike Pence the winner of the vice-presidential debate by a whisker while others have said he won comfortably. The bottom line is Tim Kaine did not win. CNN that is emerging as the most reliable media establishment to make the best guess at the outcome of such events gave Mike Pence 46 per cent against 42 per cent to Tim Kaine based on an interview of viewers. That perhaps has been a fair assessment of the debate.
In a US presidential election, the vice-president candidates are given just one chance to debate. That in itself undermines the significance of the vice-presidential debates. And public interest in such a debate is also much less than a presidential debate. Compared to the record 84 million that watched the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, only half that number watched the debate held between Governor Mike Pence and Senator Tim Kaine.
Mike Pence came to the debate prepared in every respect. He looked calm, in control of everything he uttered and generally unflustered. In contrast, Tim Kaine appeared in a hurry, like he would run out of time and therefore intervened in the debate much more than his opponent and looked much like Donald Trump in the presidential debate. He could not hide the fact that he came to the debate to attack Donald Trump with the issues that have come together to take him down in the polls and dramatically since the September 26 presidential debate.
Thus Tim Kaine used the stories that have pulled Donald Trump back when going to the presidential debate, he was going neck to neck with Hillary Clinton in the polls with the momentum in his favour. Tim Kaine major objective in the debate was to use the stories that have pulled him back since the debate with the momentum in Hillary Clinton's favour to drive Donald Trump's numbers further down. These issues were the New York Times story on Donald Trump's tax returns, his Tweeter texting late in the night on former Miss Universe Alicia Machado's alleged sex tapes and his lack of temperament to be the president and the commander-in-chief.
Mike Pence for a change from the presidential debate was able to make the Democrats look like the party more into the smear game. Tim Kaine helped him to establish the point by repeatedly attacking and smearing Donald Trump. There was of course reason to believe that Tim Kaine overdid the smearing that was deliberate. He was clearly directing such smearing with target audiences in mind. He was not bothered what others outside the target audiences thought of his smearing.
The repeated reference to the sex texting was targeted at the women voters. Women, particularly suburban white women, would be very significant for the election's outcome. These voters would have no incentive for someone who humiliates and insults women because they are overweight and to make it worse, sex texts over it late into the night. Tim Kaine repeated the NYT story over and over again to the point of even irritating many viewers also for a specific reason. He wanted to get across to a national audience that Donald Trump had not paid taxes for nearly two decades.
One major reason why Mitt Romney had lost the 2012 election was the fact that when he finally released his tax returns for 20 years towards the end of the election late in September, it was revealed that despite being a millionaire, he had paid on an average only 14 per cent of his income in taxes. The average American pays much more, in fact, double of what he paid in percentage terms. In Donald Trump's case, with just three pages of his 1995 tax returns revealed, that he had paid no taxes at all for 18 years legally by submitting to the IRS that in that year he had lost nearly US$ 1.0 billion in investments.
Tim Kaine used Donald Trump's tax losses also to spin it against his own view of himself. Donald Trump has boasted repeatedly on the campaign trail that he is brilliant as a businessman. Based on the claim, he has said time and again that as the President, he would turn the country around from its deplorable state to become "great again" the same way he turned his own businesses into successes. Tim Kaine said in the debate that the fact that Donald Trump lost a staggering US$ 1.0 billion in bad investments in one year alone for which many thousands of small investors suffered belied his tall claims as a brilliant businessman.
Thus although Mike Pence won the debate on debating points, he failed to defend Donald Trump on issues that are taking him down in the polls. He did not make any serious effort to defend Donald Trump on the tax issue in the context of the NYT story and on sex texting. In fact, he did a lot to the contrary that instead of helping Donald Trump dug holes into his candidature. Under relentless attack about Donald Trump's fondness for the Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Russia, Mike Pence, in fact, backed unwittingly Hillary Clinton's perception of the Russian leader and Russia as a country against those of Donald Trump.
Mike Pence thus destroyed a major argument of Donald Trump's campaign theme to "Make America Great Again" based on the weird assumptions that Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama and Russia is a more powerful country than the United States that under President Obama has become a Third World country. Mike Pence called Vladimir Putin "small" and "bullying" and described Russia as dangerous that works against US' interests. He said that the US "economy is 16 times larger than the Russian economy" and that "America's political system is superior to the crony, corrupt, capitalist system in Russia in every way."
Mike Pence, in fact, debated the way a normal Republican candidate should, like taking pride in the country and its military, which are core conservative values. Many analysts have suggested that Mike Pence debated looking beyond the 2016 election that he thinks is now un-winnable and into the 2020 and the 2024 elections and building a case for himself as a future presidential candidate. These analysts have further suggested that he did not defend Donald Trump enthusiastically, first because his positions on major issues are indefensible; and second, his case as a presidential candidate in future would be harmed if he is seen overtly and enthusiastically supporting these indefensible positions of Donald Trump.
The polls are showing that Donald Trump is in a free fall with the vice-presidential debate not affecting it in anyway. He has fallen from 48 per cent to 23 per cent against Hillary Clinton's rise from 54 per cent to 76 per cent on chances of winning on Nate Silver's website between the first presidential debate and the day after the vice-presidential debate. And in most polls, Florida, North Carolina and even Ohio where Donald Trump was leading going to the first debate have now gone to the Democrats. Notwithstanding the fact that Mike Pence did not defend Donald Trump enthusiastically for whatever are the reasons, his winning the vice-presidential debate will give the Republican candidate at least some breathing space to prepare for the next presidential debate due on Sunday, October 09.
Whether he will prepare for it or not is in itself a million dollar question. If Donald Trump is unable to turn things around in the next debate, he and his campaign may be looking at the barrel of the gun with just thirty days remaining after that debate.
The writer is a retired Ambassador.