I generally agree with the consensus view that a vice presidential debate matters only to the extent that any given news cycle matters — it breaks through for about 24 hours, then fades right back into the background as voters rightly refocus on the top of the ticket. But 2016 is unusual, and there’s a chance that Pence’s performance will resonate.
First, it’s remarkable the extent to which nominal Trump supporters — without any foundation at all — believe that Trump will elevate Pence to a position of real prominence in the administration. I hear this from voters and from talk radio hosts. They’re convinced that Pence will end up as perhaps the real power behind the throne, and if you believe Pence will be particularly prominent, then last night was deeply reassuring. Pence was reasonable, well-informed, and far more presidential than Kaine. He was more presidential than Clinton or Trump.
Second, to the extent that Trump is teachable at all — there’s little evidence he is – last night showed him the value of preparation. You don’t have to spend all your time defending yourself. You can actually pivot to your opponent’s weaknesses. At this point, if Trump is intent on defending his every inane utterance and business setback, the next debate will be just like the last, where Hillary (or the moderator) can bait him into endless defensive filibustering.
Of course — as almost everyone is noting — Pence also spent much of his time acting as if Trump never said the things he’s so plainly said, and the entire fact-checking industry just engaged the hyperdrive and is quoting Trump back to the American people at light speed. I would feel sorry for Pence, saddled as he is with such a dreadful and irresponsible running mate, but he put the saddle on himself.