Mike Pence’s vice-presidential debate victory was a striking blow for normality.
In fact, beneath the sound and the fury of the Trump campaign, normal Republicans are having a pretty good year. Pence had an exemplary introduction on the national stage. GOP Senate candidates are holding their own. House Speaker Paul Ryan, flying the banner of a traditional Republican agenda of uplift, could well minimize Republican losses in the House.
Of course, normal Republicans lost in a rout to Donald Trump in the primaries, and their fate is intertwined with his. He is still running close to Hillary Clinton, which keeps everyone in the game. If the bottom falls out for him, it will inevitably sink other Republicans, too.
But Trump’s incendiary populism is represented only at the top of the ticket, where it is losing a winnable race, while more conventional down-ballot Republicans are so far hanging in there.
Republican Senate candidates consistently outperform Trump. According to the latest batch of Quinnipiac polls, Marco Rubio is at 48 percent in Florida and Trump is at 44. Rob Portman is at 55 in Ohio and Trump is at 46. Pat Toomey is at 50 in Pennsylvania and Trump is at 43. Richard Burr, though, is even with Trump at 46 in North Carolina.
According to the RealClearPolitics average, Kelly Ayotte is running 10 points ahead of Trump in New Hampshire. Even an embattled incumbent senator like Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson is doing 3.3 points better than Trump in his state.
This is not typical. A Republican consultant who looked at data going back to 1996 found that swing-state Senate incumbents tend to run even with the presidential candidate and no more than 2 points ahead, except in a couple extraordinary cases.
Consider Rob Portman. He is no one’s idea of a bomb-thrower. His political hero is George H. W. Bush. But he is doing better than Trump in a Trump-friendly state. Portman has a strong and trusted political brand that he has carefully protected this year, endorsing Trump while distancing himself from him at the same time. And the Ohio senator has done the fundamental blocking and tackling of a serious, disciplined candidate determined to win.
In a year when all the rules are supposed to be suspended, the rules are still highly useful. Mike Pence prepared for the debate in boringly conventional ways. He studied up. He held mock debate sessions with Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. He had a strategy and executed it, deflecting things he didn’t want to talk about (i.e., most of Trump’s controversial statements and heterodox positions) and pivoting back to things he did want to discuss.
If Trump had done the same in the first presidential debate, the race might look different today. His highly combative and unorthodox campaign style, coupled with a focus on trade and immigration almost to the exclusion of anything else, is proving to be an obstacle to overcome, rather than a boost for the party and himself. In other words, the question is whether Trump can win despite his abnormality rather than because of it.
This isn’t to say that Trump doesn’t have distinctive strengths. Surely, if Mike Pence had run for president this year, Trump would have squashed him like a bug just like he did everyone else — festooning him with an unflattering nickname and belittling and unmanning him at the debates.
Nonetheless, Trump has been at his best this campaign when he has tried hardest to attain a simulacrum of normality. His new discipline after his August swoon was the reason — together with Hillary Clinton’s struggles — that he nearly pulled into a tie before the first debate. If he is going to come back again, it won’t be with 3 a.m. tweets and attacks on ordinary people who have crossed him.
It still wants to be a change election, which is another way of saying that it wants to be a Republican year — if Donald Trump can somehow act the part.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.