In retrospect, Tim Kaine’s debate was a masterful lesson in campaign strategy

Appearances can be deceiving.
Appearances can be deceiving.
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
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For most of the US vice presidential debate, the collective Twittersphere concluded that senator Tim Kaine had made a bad miscalculation. He was not just annoying and overaggressive in interrupting governor Mike Pence; he was plain rude. But, as the dust has settled, it is even more evident that Kaine, and the Hillary Clinton campaign as a whole, is simply operating at different strategic level than the rest of us.

How many people do you think saw the debate? Right now, estimates say approximately 36 million people, which, while significant, is a major drop off from the 51 million that watched in 2012, and the lowest since 2000. The vast majority of voters did not watch the debate; their only exposure is the post-debate spin.

Let’s be clear: Pence won the debate. While vapid and wholly without any policy details, he was calm and presidential to Kaine’s frenetic and unpolished demeanor. He simply looked the part. But his victory is pyrrhic, because Kaine’s strategy and execution will win the election.

Kaine’s goal was simple: get as many of Donald Trump’s quotes on the record as possible, and force Pence to either defend them, or abandon them. Either situation here was a win/win. The end plan was to use these scripted quotes in television ads that will be seen by a far larger audience than the debate itself, from now until the end of the election.

Kaine didn’t care that he looked like an attack dog instead of the excited puppy he normally is; people are voting for Clinton and Trump, not Kaine or Pence. In two days, people will forget his tone and tenor, but you know what they will remember? Pence pretending the past year never happened, Pence either being woefully uninformed about his own ticket or intentionally lying on national television. But Pence can deny reality all he wants; too many people have heard Trump say exactly what Pence refused to acknowledge.

Rather, the Clinton campaign simply wanted Kaine to list every awful thing Trump has said or done for the record and force Pence to address them, which can later be rebroadcast to a far bigger audience. That’s what people will remember. It’s why Kaine kept returning to Trump’s statements, no matter the topic, and kept forcing Pence to defend the indefensible. While the strategy may have seemed ineffective, if not offensive, during the actual debate, it is now clear it was done solely for ads such as this one, which the campaign had ready to go within hours of the debate:

To get these quotes, all Kaine had to do was memorize the litany of Trump’s offensive statements. He had to memorize the exact quotes in case Pence wanted to attack him for misquoting Trump, instead of just denying they ever happened as he did. Pay attention to Kaine’s specific recitation of the quotes and canned lines. They make the sparring cleaner for the tape. This shouldn’t be a surprise; Kaine was a trial lawyer for eighteen years, and he has debated at the local, state, and federal level numerous times. He has experience setting people up like this in deposition, getting the record clean and exactly how he wants it so sections can be quoted in briefs or at trial, or, in this case, in an ad. And Pence walked right into it. Did we really believe Kaine, with all this experience and the hyper-managed Clinton campaign, would go in guns blazing unless it was part of some grand scheme? Mark it down, you’ll see this ad, and others like it, from now until election day.

Ultimately, this is what happens when you have a smart campaign team and a cohesive long-term strategy. You can make a plan like this, stick to it, and have your team ready to capitalize as soon as it comes to fruition. That’s what we just saw, and we should all be glad we got to witness it.

Mike Pence and Donald Trump may have won the battle, but Tim Kaine and Hillary Clinton are going to win the war.