Home Election 2020 The Counter Opinion: Vice presidential debate reflections

The Counter Opinion: Vice presidential debate reflections

23 min read

The vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris occurred on Wednesday, Oct. 7. We asked our opinion writers about the winner and the loser, memorable points, the moderator and polling numbers. Contributing are Charlotte Caldwell, a junior journalism major, Aya Cathey, a freshman journalism major and Bryce Hoehn, a senior political science major.

Please note that these views and opinions do not reflect those of The New Political.

Which candidate was the winner of the debate?

Charlotte: Harris seemed to answer questions more straight-forward than Pence, who would take time to think about a response before he backpedaled and answered them when the conversation had already moved on. This would make her the winner to me because by the time Pence answered a question, the viewers probably already forgot the details of the conversation.

Aya: There was no clear winner of the debate. Both Harris and Pence appealed to their parties exactly the way they intended to. However, if “winning” was based on the most accurate statements and abiding by the rules of the debate, I would say Harris definitely won.

Bryce: With both presidential candidates in their late 70s and with Trump’s questionable health after his COVID-19 diagnosis, it may be more appropriate to treat this as the real presidential debate. While I thought Kamala did an excellent job criticizing the Trump administration and generally remaining truthful, Pence was likely more successful at swaying voters. Pence demonstrated his ability to mislead and promote the conservative agenda more coherently and civilly than Trump, which strongly threatens Biden’s strategy of captivating “never-Trump” voters on the right given the real possibility that Pence could become acting president if Trump’s health worsens.

I appreciated Harris mentioning that people under 26 will lose their health care if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, which Pence indicated he would do. This was a clear move toward youth voters who Biden struggled with in the primary, but Harris still fell into the same trap as Biden, which I wrote about in The Counter opinion on the presidential debate. Pence employed the same strategy Trump did of falsely accusing Harris of supporting popular left-wing proposals, such as the Green New Deal and a fracking ban, which forced her to clarify that she does not support these policies. The Biden campaign has a broad but fragile coalition ranging all the way from Bernie Sanders supporters to George W. Bush’s cabinet. When Trump and Pence employ these attacks, that coalition is being shaved from both ends as right-leaning voters might buy into their lies and fear tactics while left-wing voters may become discouraged, thus depressing turnout.

What was the most memorable point made for both candidates?

Charlotte: Both candidates had memorable talking points that mostly mirrored what the presidential candidates said in the first debate, but the more memorable occurrences to me were the questions that the candidates refused to answer. For example, Harris had two opportunities to answer the question posed by Pence about her supposed intention of packing the Supreme Court. In the first opportunity, she mentioned Abraham Lincoln’s decision in a similar event, and in the second opportunity, all she said was, “Let’s have the pack the Supreme Court talk,” and stopped there. It is also worth noting that Harris felt the need to explain relatively simple terms to the audience. For example, at one point she explained what a bounty was, which is either a term that the American people would know or something that they could do a quick Google search on. It did not sound smart and sophisticated — it only sounded like she thought the American people were incompetent.

Pence not only avoided the question, “Is climate change an existential threat,” but he also did not give a clear answer on whether or not President Trump would commit to a peaceful transition of power. If Pence, and the rest of the Trump administration, were thinking about what would appeal to their base more, the correct response should be, “That’s ridiculous. Why wouldn’t he accept a peaceful transition of power?” The constant avoidance of this question by both Pence and Trump is starting to make this notion more plausible to voters.

Aya: On a comical note, the fly landing on Pence’s head as he publicly stated America was not a systemically racist country was undoubtedly a highlight of the evening for me. In reality, the most memorable point of the debate was the discussion about the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It was clear Harris believed Taylor and her family deserved further justice, but Pence believed her justice had been accounted for. Instead, he shifted the focus to George Floyd, who he then said was unfairly killed, but that he will always support our country’s law enforcement. A very mixed response. 

Bryce: I definitely agree that the fly on Pence’s head was the most memorable part of the debate. Shortly after the debate ended, “The Fly” was the top trend on Twitter, and Biden himself has even tweeted memes about it, including a tweet promoting flywillvote.com, which redirects to the I Will Vote campaign. While this might come off as a somewhat satirical response, I genuinely believe the fly will be more remembered than anything either of the vice presidential candidates said tonight, especially considering the relative civility compared to last week’s presidential debate.

I also agree with Charlotte that the candidates said more with their silence on certain questions than with their actual responses. The dodge that stuck out most to me was when both candidates refused to answer the question about the possibility of Trump not stepping down peacefully. It is kind of terrifying that this is even a necessary question. When asked what the Biden campaign would do if this happened, Harris gave an impassioned speech about voting, mirroring Biden’s response to election interference. Again, I think this response is extremely naive because the threats of Trump interfering in the election or refusing to step down blatantly disregard the results of the election, although I can understand that the campaign might not want to show their hand until it comes to it. I just hope they actually do have a plan beyond what they have indicated in these debates.

Did the moderator, Susan Page, do her job well? How did she do in comparison to the presidential debate moderator, Chris Wallace?

Charlotte: Lucky for her, Page did not have to endure as many interruptions as Wallace did. I would have liked to see Page implement more direct language, however, to get the candidates to stop talking quicker. After a couple of seconds of “thank you,” and “your time is up,” she would give in and let the candidates continue. There were a couple of moments when she spoke up for herself and one instance where she used a tactic from Wallace’s book: “Your campaigns agreed to the rules, I’m just here to enforce them,” which was effective in both debates to get the candidates to stop talking. There were a couple of questions that the candidates refused to answer. It may have been more beneficial if Page called them out on their non-answers.

Aya: Page did her job well. While she did not have as much of a challenge keeping the discussion civil, there were several instances where Pence spoke over his time, and she reminded him that he swore to follow the rules of the debate and must continue doing so. However, I believe her questions were far too long. It was almost as if she would provide background information about a subject before asking a direct question, which forced the candidates to address a broader range of ideas. This strategy also, unfortunately, allowed Pence to deflect from several topics. After seeing how she conducted herself throughout the debate, I do not believe she would have done any better than Wallace had she moderated the presidential debates.

Bryce: Page did a much better job than Wallace overall, although both candidates frequently went over their time limits with little consequences. While Wallace’s questions were frequently framed with far-right biases, such as his questioning about riots and how addressing climate change would impact the economy, Page’s questions were much more neutral. Rather than going after Harris for wanting to take action on climate change as Wallace did to Biden, Page went after Pence for his lack of action and framed it in the accurate terms of an existential threat. While Page seemed quicker to call out candidates for interrupting or going over their time limits, there were still no real consequences stopping the candidates from doing so. On the one hand, I think this could be partially remedied by muting candidates’ microphones outside of their allotted time, but I also think the two-minute answer and 30-second rebuttal format is simply not enough time to explain complex geopolitical issues. This format often resorts to quick one-liners and encourages lying as the opponent does not have enough time to correct them without losing their opportunity to speak on the next topic. Page also did not call out Pence for his frequent lies, nor did she pressure candidates on their non-answers to several questions. While Page definitely did a better job than Wallace, the entire debate format is deeply flawed and needs to be radically changed if we are going to have any serious political discussions in the future.

Will this debate have an effect on polling numbers for the presidential candidates?

Charlotte: Bringing it back to Bryce’s earlier point, polling numbers might shift slightly if a voter was on the fence before this, especially because we could be looking at one of our next presidents due to Trump’s health and the ages of both Trump and Biden. Because of this, the candidates’ responses in this debate became a little more pertinent than past vice presidential debates, so anything that did not sit right with voters may be enough to change their vote.

Aya: This debate will not substantially affect polling numbers for the presidential candidates; they hardly ever do. The evening revealed a lot about each candidate, however, and it was a learning experience for people on both sides of the ticket. Tonight, we saw Pence was a liar, just like President Trump. He lied about banning all travel from China, starting to create a vaccine in February, Trump’s taxes and his improvements to the economy. Pence also made ridiculous statements such as “The land and water are cleaner than any time ever recorded in history,” and “Joe Biden is going to raise everyone’s taxes.” Ironically, he could not honor his own catchphrase, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” Again, while the polling numbers will not dramatically change, the American people certainly have a lot to consider after tonight. 

Bryce: While Biden is currently ahead in the polls and there was not a significant change immediately following the debate, the campaign’s strategy of building a broad coalition with former Republicans rather than solidifying support from the left is their Achilles’ heel. The Democratic Party has frequently blamed Green Party voters for their electoral defeats, especially in 2000 and 2016, yet are still repeating the same mistakes by failing to address those voters’ concerns. Although the Biden coalition is much broader, it is also much less enthusiastic in its support compared to the populist approaches of President Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaigns. This results in far fewer grassroots mobilization and makes voters in the coalition more susceptible to anti-Biden messaging. That is why I see the trap of accusing Biden and Harris as supporting popular left-wing positions extremely effective. Those former Republicans may also be swayed by Pence for coming off as more coherent and civil than Trump, especially given the possibility that Pence could take over as acting president if Trump’s health continues to decline. I highly advise the Biden campaign to counter this threat by adopting and defending these left-wing policies to solidify the left rather than concede to the right-wing of their coalition, who they could easily lose anyway if Trump becomes incapacitated before the election. There is not an immediate, dramatic change in the polls, but if Trump is incapacitated before the election, Biden’s entire campaign strategy could fall apart unless he takes preventative action now by adopting the demands of the left.

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