Just three days into his official role as Donald Trump's running mate, Indiana Governor and vice presidential hopeful Mike Pence has clearly defined his role in this campaign: For all intents and purposes, Pence will act as Trump's "interpreter" and filter for the traditional conservative audience.
That role was evident a few times during Trump and Pence's already much-discussed interview on "60 Minutes" on Sunday night, where Pence interjected a couple of times to either clarify, or translate, Trump's typical campaign rhetoric into the kind of language conservatives and establishment Republicans like and understand. Pence did that most notably in that interview when Trump insisted it would be a good idea to declare war on ISIS and Pence parsed that as the kind of statement that projects more American strength into the world arena. That type of reframing serves as catnip for most conservatives — the details of how we would carry out such a formal war declaration suddenly don't seem as important.
And language is key here because vice presidential running mates have worked to unify different factions inside political parties before, but Pence cannot do that effectively just by adding his name to the ticket. He has to speak out. For example, when Dick Cheney chose himself to be George W. Bush's running mate in 2000, Cheney didn't have to say anything to assure Republicans worried about Bush's relative lack of experience. He allayed a lot of their fears simply by the fact that the Secretary of Defense during the first Gulf War and a longtime congressional leader was joining the Bush team to give it more clout. That was sufficient because Bush wasn't really saying much that was getting him into serious trouble with the news media and the undecided voters. Bush did have a gaffe-filled interview very early in the campaign, where he failed to correctly name the leaders of several key foreign countries, thus the need for someone like Cheney. But that was pretty much all Cheney had to "clean up."
Trump, by contrast, has been a walking controversial sound-bite machine since the day he announced his candidacy. Not all of Trump's statements have alienated traditional Republican conservatives, but many have. And more than just the actual words have bothered them; they're also dismayed by Trump's demeanor and bluster that seems out of control at times. Enter Pence, who is not only a pure ideological conservative but also has an extremely reserved and refined demeanor. Even if he did say the exact same words Trump did, they would somehow sound more acceptable coming out of his mouth to those who are turned off by Trump's personality. To put it another way, Pence isn't selling the Republican ticket as a whole. He's selling Trump to reluctant voters who still don't trust or even like him. That's a job few vice presidential candidates have had to do at the scale Pence is being asked to do it. At least 3-4 times during the "60 Minutes interview," Pence referred to Trump as "this good man." He's going to have to keep saying that line until enough people believe it.
Of course, Pence has to play this role very carefully. He can't seem like he's constantly making apologies for Trump either. That would be a tall order, especially since the "60 Minutes" interview proved that Pence will have a hard time getting more than a few words in edgewise when he's in the same room with Trump anyway. But presidential and vice presidential candidates travel a separate campaign trail, and we can expect Pence to focus on conservative states where many traditional Republican voters are still having a bit of a hard time warming up to Trump. Pence will also most likely focus his travels to Midwestern states like his home of Indiana, but probably not too many appearances in places like Michigan where Trump's decidedly non-conservative opposition to international trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement are resonating with voters.
But Pence does end a Republican-VP candidate losing streak that began in 2008. Then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin didn't help Senator John McCain close the gender gap and she didn't provide a geographic or rhetorical edge or variety to the campaign. In 2012, Paul Ryan looked and sounded way too much like presidential nominee Mitt Romney to vary the ticket in any way. This time, Pence provides ideological variety and a visible and audible difference from the top of the ticket. That's extremely valuable when so many voters were looking for something that looks and sounds different from the current choices on the menu.