If the first presidential debate is the one that matters most, last night was the general election campaign that traditionally matters least. At least Clinton supporters should hope so because Pence more or less won. While the full "numbers" are not available yet, the early reports are that Pence likely beat Kaine with the general electorate and, more importantly, wooed traditional conservatives.
Kaine's StrategyKaine's strategy was to be a formula Vice President attack dog. He came out of the gate too hot and constantly interrupted Mike Pence when it was Pence's turn to speak. Ineffective moderation led to the debate being an often unintelligible free-for all. Kaine's strategy was to try to hang Trump around Pence's neck but he only had a modest degree of success with this due to Pence's adroit, if false, denial that Trump had ever said those things.
If Kaine was trying to be a central-casting VP, Pence was auditioning for President. He was poised, dignified, and generally unflappable. None of the moderation questions went to his potential weak-spots (such as gay rights) and he generally, like Kaine, just immediately answered any question with an un-related anti-Clinton talking point.
Pence's straight-up denial that Trump ever 'said those things' is likely a preview of how the GOP plans to move past Trump should he lose in November: Pretend it never happened. It may work.
Nate Silver noted that Pence might, weirdly, be positioning himself to "win the debate but lose the debate cycle afterwards." Indeed, this morning there were more stories on The Omnivore's feed about Pence's Trump-denials than Pence's stronger performance. We'll see if that's the case over-all in about 2 days.
The Post Debate Predictions
It was also stated that Pence may have upstaged and annoyed Trump. Trump, during the debate, tweeted insults at the same time that Pence was being indignant about Clinton's 'insult-driven' campaign, re-tweeted a white supremacist, and tweeted in ALL CAPS several times. It is not beyond the pale to speculate that Trump might be upset at being shown-up by his #2.
But keep in mind that it's also possible that given Pence's success, Trump might see his performance as a model strategy for Sunday's debate (whether or not Trump has the discipline to execute on it is anyone's guess).
In any event, this debate was good for Trump voter's morale. In 2012 after Obama tanked the first debate, Joe Biden came back and hammered Paul Ryan, stemming the emotional bleeding. When Obama came back strong in the 2nd (and 3rd) debates, the Democrat's ship was righted. This template still exists for Trump, increasing the stakes for Sunday night and improving the chance that Trump will show up.
Whether there will be any significant movement in the polls is a question we'll have to wait for.