Donald Trump is set to make his VP announcement on Friday, and there's increasing buzz that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence could be the pick. A New York Times report cites three anonymous sources who say that Trump's advisers have told Republican officials "that they are preparing to make an announcement" with Pence, and IndyStar and Roll Call have both reported that Pence is the pick. The Times reporters' sources, however caution that Trump could still change his mind, and two Trump aides have tweeted that no decision has yet been made.
If Pence does turn out to be the pick, though, he would be in some ways an almost shockingly banal choice for Trump — a former Congress member turned governor of a midsize state who didn’t intervene in the primary in any kind of noteworthy way.
Still, a banal choice would be a kind of statement all of its own. Pence on the ticket could help Trump mend fences with Republican officeholders and conservative institutions, but it wouldn’t require him to work together with anyone he’s clashed with or who has denounced any of his more outlandish ideas.
What’s more, back when Pence was in Washington, he tended to position himself as an outsider firebrand rather than an establishment figure, so he might be atmospherically appropriate to Trump.
Who is Mike Pence?
In the late 1980s, Pence was a young lawyer and conservative activist in Indiana who launched two failed congressional bids before getting a job as the president of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a state-level conservative think tank. After a few years, he left the world of think tanking for the less intellectually demanding work of regional conservative talk radio, before winning a seat in the US House of Representatives in November of 2000.
During the Bush years, Pence positioned himself as a right-wing factional leader — participating in rebellions against Bush’s Medicare expansion and immigration reform proposals and running as the "true conservative" alternative to John Boehner in the 2006 race for House minority leader. (He lost, and it wasn’t close.)
Early in the Obama years, Pence was frequently on television making the case against the new president’s policies, and he seemed well-positioned to capitalize on the wave of Tea Party fervor that swept the GOP in 2009. But he blinked and opted out of a 2010 Senate bid, and rapidly found his star somewhat obscured by the rapid ascent of Paul Ryan.
In 2012, Pence got out of dodge by successfully running for governor of Indiana. Ensconced there, he’s operated largely out of the limelight — a conservative governor of a conservative state who briefly popped up in the headlines with a fight on a religious freedom bill but also took a surprisingly moderate tack by embracing Medicaid expansion. That left him an also-ran amid a very crowded field of potential 2016 contenders, and Pence opted to forgo a race in favor of focusing on his reelection this year.
Mike Pence is a real Republican Party politician with years of service in Washington under his belt and experience in statewide office. He’s also a legitimate conservative politician — conservative enough that he endorsed Ted Cruz for president rather than Trump.
But crucially, his Cruz endorsement was about praising Ted Cruz — and not about bashing Trump.
In fact, in the course of endorsing Cruz, Pence specifically went out of his way to say, "I particularly want to commend Donald Trump," for taking a stand for Indiana jobs and "for his voice in the national debate."
Which is to say that adding Pence to the ticket would be a way to professionalize and normalize the operation while broadening Trump’s coalition without requiring Trump to eat any humble pie or make peace with any of the many GOP leaders who bashed him at one point or another in the campaign.
Pence seems like a low-risk, low-reward kind of option, which is often a sound play in the realm of vice presidenting but doesn’t seem very Trumpy. What’s more, Trump is persistently down in the polls and getting clobbered in fundraising at the moment.
Those are roughly the circumstances that led John McCain to opt for the high-risk, high-reward Sarah Palin pick in 2008. Palin turned out to be a disaster, but the McCain campaign’s basic view that playing it safe meant certain defeat was a sound analysis. One might expect Trump to try to reach for someone with more upside than a conservative governor of a conservative state.
The bottom line
Mike Pence would be a boring, sensible VP pick, and if Trump chooses him, he'd be giving up the opportunity to shake up the campaign by doing something a little risky.
Still, managing to pick a VP who didn’t in any way hurt Trump or anger new groups of people would be savvy decision-making from the often erratic candidate.