Eleven Three Twenty: My Take on Last Night’s Vice-Presidential Debate
October 8, 2020
In yesterday’s column, I wrote that the three things I’d be looking for in last night’s debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris were the tone of the candidates, their answers to tough questions, and how Presidential they appeared. My thoughts on how they handled those three are just part of the following 10 observations or conclusions after watching the debate and following people’s real-time responses online during and after the debate:
- The old adage about Vice-Presidential debates is “First, do no harm.” The last thing a Presidential campaign wants is for the understudy to screw up. And both the Vice President and Senator passed this important test. There were no major faux pas or controversial moments that the campaign will have to fix today. In fact, the most memorable part of the debate for the casual viewer was when a fly landed on the Vice President’s head and remained there for a full two minutes, ensuring that THAT’S what this debate will be remembered for. And as strange as it may seem, I’m guessing both campaigns are okay with that — especially the Biden camp, which seized the moment by tweeting out a picture of him holding a fly swatter with the caption: “Pitch in $5 to help this campaign fly.”
- Overall, I think the Biden and Trump campaigns have to be happy with the performances of the Senator and Vice President— both of whom had some great moments and some poor moments.
- In terms of their great moments…Senator Harris was best early on when attacking the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. She absolutely owned the first 15–20 minutes — a time frame that is considered crucial by campaigns because most casual viewers rarely watch the entire debate. Senator Harris also did well on the topics of transparency and racial justice. Vice President Pence landed solid punches on the topics of the economy and China. And he reiterated the President’s tough stance on “law and order” in much less draconian language than the President typically uses.
- Their bad moments? ANSWER THE DAMN QUESTIONS ALREADY!!! Both were guilty of doing everything in their power to avoid answering the questions that were asked — especially the tough ones. (Although I think with the exception of the Supreme Court question, which Senator Harris was nowhere close to answering, she did a slightly better job of at least discussing something in the same zip code of the questions.)
- I also thought Senator Harris’ style was more animated and emotional (in a good way). While Vice President Pence brought some sense of steadiness and calmness to a campaign that has been spinning out of control lately. Having said that, some viewers felt he dialed it back a little TOO much, sometimes appearing low energy or disinterested.
- What viewers most criticized the Vice President for was that he consistently went over his allotted time and he often spoke over Senator Harris and the moderator. He was nowhere near as rude as the President last week in Cleveland, but it was annoying as the 90 minutes wore on. More importantly, it seemed to hit a nerve with female viewers, if social media is any indication. Many women, from casual viewers to political pundits, railed against Pence for stealing time away from Harris and for ignoring the female moderator’s attempts to stop him. I saw numerous comments accusing him of being like every interrupting, “man-splaining” co-worker they have to deal with every day. If that view is widely held, that’s horrible news for a campaign facing the largest gender gap in Presidential campaign history.
- Speaking of the moderator…Susan Page of USA Today asked some great questions. Unfortunately, she then allowed the candidates to not answer those great questions. Also, she could have been tougher with the Vice President when he consistently spoke for longer than his allotted time. Still, I thought she did a decent job, although she also had an easier task than Chris Wallace did in Cleveland, because she generally dealt with two rational adults last night.
- One of the biggest challenges remaining for the Biden/Harris ticket is to come up with some reasonable answer to the Supreme Court packing question. Both of the candidates have mishandled that, and it shouldn’t be that tough. They also need to hit the Trump/Pence ticket harder on China and the economy. I believe the President won the economy topic last week, and the Vice President won it again last night.
- The biggest challenge for the Trump/Pence campaign is figuring out a way to get Americans thinking about anything other than the pandemic and their administration’s response to it. Because if that issue continues to dominate the news cycle, they lose on November 3. Also, the Vice President didn’t instill any more confidence in the peaceful transition of power if they lose on November 3 than did the President last week. And, um, that’s kind of a BIG deal in a constitutional democracy!
- In the end, I don’t think last night’s debate changed the trajectory of the campaign. Yes, Pence may have stemmed the bleeding a little with a solid (albeit bland) performance. And, yes, Kamala Harris proved that the nation would be in good hands with her in the Oval Office. Beyond that? I think the campaign is in the same spot after the debate as it was before the debate. And given the recent poll numbers, the high amount of votes that have been cast already, and the fact that we’re under four weeks until the election, that’s ultimately bad news for the President.
For those of you wondering why I’m qualified to write about this topic, I have a Ph.D. in Human Communication Studies from the University of Denver — with an emphasis on leadership, power, and persuasion. My dissertation research focused on political communication, specifically Ross Perot’s 1992 Presidential campaign (“A Mythic Analysis of Ross Perot’s 1992 Campaign Infomercials as a Modern American Jeremiad”). And I have worked on — or consulted for — a number of political campaigns, ranging from the mayoral to the Presidential level.