The Republican candidate spent much of last week campaigning around the country in his plane, a rented Eastern Airlines 737.
He’s got more than a decade of experience in government and — with his white hair, square jaw and folksy rasp — he seems like the Hollywood version of a national candidate.
The Republican candidate is an evangelical Christian who makes a point of introducing himself by his first name. Earlier this month, he released his tax returns, showing him to be someone of relatively modest means with a negative net worth.
This is not some parallel universe or alternate reality. This Republican candidate is running for vice president.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is the first to admit he has a radically different personality from brash billionaire GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. Yet he insists they share the same values.
“He’s a charismatic larger-than-life figure, so they were looking for somebody to balance the ticket, obviously,” Pence explained in a brief interview with Yahoo News last week. “Look, I think we do have different styles. I’m Indiana, he’s New York City. But what we’ve found out very early on in this friendship was that we really shared the same goals; we share the same love for our family, the same love for this country.”
And their campaign believes that their differences make them a strong ticket, that the balance of devout Midwestern public servant and brazen New York billionaire could win over voters wary of Trump’s hot temper and lack of political experience. That strategy will be put to its first real test on Tuesday, when Pence, who was hardly a household name before being tapped by Trump, will be under the biggest national spotlight of his career as he faces off against Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine in the vice presidential debate.
Pence and Trump are, as he acknowledges, a political odd couple. Trump often touts his status as a political outsider, but Pence served in the House of Representatives from 2001 to 2013 before becoming Indiana’s governor. And while Trump is a former Democrat who had multiple marriages and once described himself as “very pro-choice,” Pence is a religious conservative who has focused on fighting gay marriage and abortion.
In the primary, Pence didn’t endorse Trump and instead backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. On the campaign trail, Trump has explained this away by arguing that Pence was “under tremendous pressure from establishment people” and ended up delivering a tepid speech for Cruz that was “more of an endorsement for me.”
However, there have been whispers that Pence isn’t fully on board with Trump. On July 15, the day Trump officially announced Pence as his running mate, veteran GOP operative Dan Senor caused a stir with a tweet.
“It’s disorienting to have had commiserated w/someone re: Trump — about how he was unacceptable, & then to see that someone become Trump’s VP,” Senor wrote.
Senor did not respond to a request for comment.
But in his conversation with Yahoo, Pence insisted that he’s “incredibly proud to be Donald Trump’s running mate.”
“I’m honored to be on the ticket,” Pence said. “I truly do believe this good man’s going to be a great president of the United States.”
Yet Pence and Trump’s differences didn’t end after they joined forces. At times, Pence and Trump have appeared decidedly out of step with each other, even as they ran together.
On Sept. 14, Pence unequivocally said he and Trump “both accept” that President Obama “was born in the United States of America.” Yet that same day, Trump talked with the Washington Post and did not deny the so-called birther conspiracy theories about the president. And when Pence released his tax returns, it called attention to Trump’s refusal to do the same and prompted a raft of negative coverage, including an editorial in the Washington Post deploring a situation in which “the lesser partner on a major-party ticket [has] submitted himself to a higher standard of scrutiny than the man whose character voters most need to understand.”
A member of Pence’s campaign team says these differences reflect a deliberate strategy to “Let Mike Be Mike” and allow the governor to follow his political instincts and judgment, even when they put him at odds with the man at the top of the ticket. According to the staffer, the campaign thinks that showing these differences conveys authenticity and could maximize the ticket’s appeal to voters who might be more open to Pence’s approach. And the staffer said Trump has personally approved instances in which Pence went in a different direction.
“It has all been, ‘Let Mike Be Mike,’” the Pence staffer said. “When they talk on the phone, it’s ‘Well, of course, Mike, do that. That’s who you are.’”
The staffer specifically said Trump encouraged Pence to release his returns.
“When we needed to release our tax returns, or our medical records, or things like that, you know, I mean, it was, ‘Of course, you’ve got to do that. Go do that. Get it done,’” the staffer said, describing Trump’s reaction to the plan. “So, when we put in those news releases, you know, that this was done with the full support of Mr. Trump, he’s the one that’s saying, ‘Well, Mike, you get out there, you release that, or you do those things.’”
The “Let Mike Be Mike” mantra mirrors the Trump brain trust’s approach to the primaries. But for Trump, the motto was a license to let loose with wild insults aimed at his rivals, conspiracy theories about grand plots against him, and policies that terrified critics who cast them as draconian and racist. In Pence’s world, that long leash means freedom to act like a normal politician.
While they’re clearly a political odd couple, the campaign insists the running mates and their teams are close. In speeches, Pence tells audiences that he and Trump “talk just about every day.” They also regularly hold joint events.
“It’s really one kind of cohesive team,” the Pence staffer said of the campaign organization.
The Pence staffer says his candidate’s team is organized to “mirror” Trump’s, with the people in corresponding roles in constant communication. Several members of Pence’s vice presidential campaign staff work out of Trump’s Manhattan headquarters multiple days a week. Pence has also previously worked with Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, who is now advising both running mates.
But Pence’s team isn’t necessarily crafting policy ideas and influencing Trump’s agenda. Instead, the staffer said Pence and his team are working to “promote” Trump’s agenda, which “parallels” the policies he pursued as governor, such as cutting regulations and taxes.
Though the candidates and their teams may be close, the pairing of Pence and Trump has, at times, unquestionably made for an odd spectacle.
The weirdness began almost immediately after Trump announced his decision to make Pence his running mate on July 15. On the evening before, Trump told Fox News he had not made a “final, final decision” between Pence and the others on his shortlist. And after the choice was revealed, multiple media outlets reported that, after informing Pence that he was the pick, Trump made a series of late-night calls to aides questioning the choice and asking if he could back out of it. The Trump campaign has vigorously denied the reports that he considered dropping Pence.
Pence and Trump first appeared together on July 16 at an event at which Trump delivered a lengthy speech that most observers noticed barely mentioned his newly minted running mate. New York Times reporter Nicholas Confessore wrote on Twitter that Trump could “barely stick with a Pence thought for more than five seconds.” After wrapping up, Trump exited the stage, leaving his running mate standing alone at the podium, a gesture that Vox’s Ezra Klein described as the day’s “final humiliation” for Pence.
On Sept. 21, Pence joined Trump for a rally in Cleveland. Pence was the only elected official headlining the event along with Omarosa Manigault, a former star of Trump’s reality television show, and boxing promoter Don King, who slipped the N word into his speech. Though he is ostensibly second only to Trump on the campaign, Pence introduced King, rather than the other way around. At another Ohio speech the same day, Pence was relegated to opening for bombastic basketball coach Bobby Knight.
Pence’s solo appearances are far more typical political fare. His events last week featured local politicians rather than reality television and sports world stars.
Trump’s campaign recently adopted what a top aide described as a more “disciplined” approach, but before that Trump’s usual stump speech had been a freewheeling, unscripted hour that included frequent jabs at his rivals, attacks on the political establishment and riffs on current events. Pence’s remarks are the polar opposite. The governor spent last week delivering a scripted stump speech in which he paints himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.” Pence’s campaign trail roadshow was an earnest affair that included the ritual Republican invocation of former President Ronald Reagan and a dry recitation of statistics on national security and employment.
Pence sees something of Reagan in Trump. “People in the conservative movement, of which I am a part, often like to speak about Reagan as a conservative leader. And he was that, but in a very real sense, you know, Ronald Reagan spoke to the frustrations and the aspirations of the American people,” said Pence. “There was that old adage that … the guy on the back of a tractor, the guy driving a truck, would hear Reagan on those little radio broadcasts he did in the 1970s and just say, ‘Darn right.’ He really spoke for the American people. … What inspires me is the height and breadth of the people that are responding to Donald Trump’s vision.”
That’s exactly the type of argument the campaign hopes Pence can drive home to voters and insiders in more “traditional Republican circles” who may have been reluctant to get on board with a candidate who defies many of the party’s norms.
“They have different styles … they are communicating the same message maybe in different ways,” the Pence staffer said of the running mates. Trump “speaks from, as the governor likes to say, from Manhattan Island and, while the governor says he speaks ‘Hoosier,’ he actually speaks D.C. And so, for the Washington people, the media people, it is that balance. There are a lot of people in the traditional Republican circles, the evangelicals, they take comfort in the way he says things.”
And there are signs Pence is succeeding in selling anxious segments of the Republican base on Trump. Conservative policy guru Grover Norquist told Yahoo that Pence is a “wise choice” for Trump. Norquist cited Pence’s experience passing legislation at the state level and in Congress as a “tremendous addition” to the ticket, and he said Pence could help “to the extent that Trump needed affirmation from the quote-end-quote Religious right.” He added that Pence could help soothe concerns of establishment Republicans in Washington who are worried that they might no longer have an “entrée to the White House” with an outsider like Trump in office.
“Everybody feels they’ve got one or two degrees of separation from Pence — a congressman, a senator, a former staffer. For a whole bunch of people, it’s ‘I know him.’ I mean, I have his personal email. I have his personal phone.”
Pence isn’t just calming the nerves of the conservative establishment. Several voters who attended Pence’s rallies last week told Yahoo News the governor added to the appeal of the Republican ticket.
Betty Carson brought her three daughters to hear Pence speak in Mason City, Iowa, on Sept. 19. The family is devoutly Christian, and all of the girls are homeschooled. Carson told Yahoo News that, in the primary, she backed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has long enjoyed strong support from evangelicals. She noted that Trump “has made promises that he would be helpful to Christians in America” and said seeing Pence on the ticket “makes it a little easier” to support them.
“We heard he has a good sense of humor — and that’s very good — and that he’s an upright man,” Carson said of Pence.
David Halliburton also came out to see Pence in Mason City and described the governor’s temperament as the perfect compliment to Trump’s.
“He’s got a calmer personality, more relaxed,” Halliburton said, adding: “He kind of like cushions Trump. It’s a great ticket for both these guys.”
For his part, Pence told Yahoo that he believes the “campaign has been bringing people together from all walks of life.” The governor pointed to a speech he gave on Sept. 20 in Williamsburg, Va., as a particularly “vivid example” of voters’ support for Trump.
The event was held outdoors in Williamsburg’s meticulously maintained colonial district and, moments before Pence stepped on stage, the skies opened up.
“We got out of the car, my wife gave me a little pat on the back, and right when she was doing that, literally just, it was like the torrential downpour began,” Pence recounted.
Pence said staffers asked if he wanted to cancel.
“I could see the crowd, and one of the advance team came up and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘We’re going.’”
And go he did. Pence didn’t just make a brief cameo. He spoke for more than 20 minutes, delivering his entire stump speech as the rain soaked through his shirt. Pence’s audience of several hundred people stayed along with him.
“To see people stay, it really just, it was to me, it was just a vivid example of the enthusiasm, the determination of this movement that I see around the country. I mean, people weren’t, you know, I’m the B-list Republican celebrity on this ticket … people weren’t there to see me” Pence said. “They were there because they support what Donald Trump’s saying and doing and his visions to ‘Make America Great Again.’”
After the event, Pence strolled to the back of his plane to thank the press corps for braving the storm and to show off the soggy and saturated pages of notes he had with him. Pence told Yahoo News he called Trump immediately after the event to share the news of the devoted crowd in the crucial battleground state.
“I told him we’re going to win Virginia,” Pence said of his call with Trump.
Trump recounted their chat the following day when they shared the stage in Cleveland with King, the boxing promoter.
“He’s been an amazing partner, and he’s all over the place. Yesterday, he was in Virginia, and it was a downpour. They had a great group of people…” Trump’s face darkened as he added: “I never want him to get the kind of crowds I get because I’ll probably then get angry at him and jealous.”
Trump concluded by expressing his gratitude.
“Michael, thank you,” Trump said, adding, “very special guy.”
But Pence’s reception in Williamsburg wasn’t all positive. A small group of protesters also braved the storm and shouted at the stage throughout Pence’s speech. Some of the demonstrators carried Clinton campaign signs and many seemed focused on Trump.
“Immigrants make America great!” the protesters chanted, twisting Trump’s campaign slogan.
“Racist!” one shouted.
One man simply shouted the name of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has praised as a strong leader.
But some of the protesters were focused on Pence.
The governor gave up his chance to run for re-election when he joined Trump’s ticket. However, Pence might have had a tough time staying in office. Polls showed that Pence was headed for a tight race. Some data indicated voters were frustrated with Pence’s focus on social issues, including a controversial law he signed in March 2015 that allowed Indiana businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians for religious reasons. The law sparked widespread protests, caused many major businesses to boycott the state, and led some donors to abandon Pence.
Pence has also drawn fire for his efforts to limit abortion. As governor, he signed anti-abortion legislation each year he was in office. And last year, Pence signed a law that would have barred women from aborting a fetus because it had a disability or genetic abnormality. The legislation drew legal challenges and opposition from some Indiana Republicans. Planned Parenthood Action Fund has described Pence as “THE anti-women’s health crusader,” and Dawn Laguens, the organization’s executive vice president, told Yahoo News the governor is simply “a nightmare for women.”
“When it comes to restricting abortion, Mike Pence is so extreme, even his fellow Republicans in Indiana have objected to his actions,” Laguens said.
The anti-Pence protesters in Williamsburg seemed to be motivated by his position on social issues.
“The moves that Trump and Pence independently and together have made to counter women’s rights all over the country are just astounding,” said Becca Merriman-Goldring, a student at the nearby College of William & Mary.
Despite the protests, in his conversation with Yahoo News, Pence dismissed the idea that the ticket has been especially polarizing and suggested it hasn’t generated opposition beyond the level that’s “always” seen in American politics. While polls show less than 10 percent of African-Americans and under 25 percent of Hispanics support Trump, Pence also maintained that he’s seen incredible “diversity of support” for the ticket in his travels around the country.
“Young and old, rich and poor, I mean, I think there are Republicans … I meet Democrats who are supporting our ticket every day, independents who are supporting our ticket,” said Pence. “I actually think it’s because, somewhere deep inside, people know we can be stronger again, we can be more prosperous again. … Donald Trump’s very straightforward message to make America great again, I think, is really resonating with people from every walk of life.”
But Pence, the man tasked with softening Trump’s rougher edges, is clearly trying to translate Trump’s message for a wider audience. Trump’s signature proposal is the building of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Trump has also taken a strong stand against immigration from Muslim-dominated countries. But Pence peppers his stump speeches with references to the fact that both he and Trump have grandfathers who immigrated to the U.S. from Europe.
When Yahoo News asked Pence why we would need far more drastic security measures for Mexicans and Muslims than we saw during the wave of European migration that brought his family to this country, he insisted that Trump’s immigration policies are no different from what we’ve had in the past.
“We would … initiate the kind of reforms in our immigration system that would promote extreme vetting when people are seeking to come to this country from parts of the world that could be of a concern to the safety and security of this nation, but that’s not altogether different than when my father came through Ellis Island,” Pence said. “I mean, throughout the history of our immigration laws, we’ve always asked people whether they share the ideals of the Bill of Rights, whether they believe in the basic freedoms of this country.”
Pence is serving as Trump’s ambassador to voters who may not yet be on board, but his presence on the ticket is more of an afterthought for hardcore supporters. In fact, there’s even a key adviser to the campaign who wasn’t sure of the governor’s name when they appeared at an event together earlier this month.
On the way to his rainy night in Williamsburg, Pence held a roundtable with veterans on board a battleship in Norfolk, Va. Pence was introduced by one of Trump’s top foreign policy advisers, retired Rear Admiral Charles R. Kubic, who was sitting within earshot of a Yahoo News recorder. Moments before Pence entered the room, Kubic turned to the ex-Navy man sitting next to him to make sure he got the introduction right.
“He’s Mike Pence?” Kubic asked, stressing the governor’s first name.
“Yeah,” the other man said.
Kubic laughed nervously.
“I don’t want to flub that,” he said.