Talent vs. Status Quo: Why the Vice Presidential Debate Matters

After the first presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump went down not only in infamy but in history last week, it will now be up to running mates Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, to convince the American people.

Snapshot of Vice-Presidential Debates

The first vice presidential debate dates back to 1976, and for the vast majority, they trailed in viewership behind the presidential debates. In 2016, 37 million people watched the vice-presidential debate between then-Indiana Governor Pence and Senator Tim Kaine, comprising 44% less than the audience for the lowest-rated Clinton-Trump presidential debate of 2016, which had a viewership of 66.5 million.

The only exception to this rule was in 2008, when more people (69.9 million) watched the vice-presidential debate between Senator Biden and Governor Sarah Palin than those who watched any of the three debates between Senator Obama and Senator John McCain.

How Important are VP Debates in Swaying Voters?

However, despite the still high ratings, the debate – so far – does not seem to pose much significance for voters historically and seldom influences voter’s decisions. A 2012 Gallup study concluded that in presidential campaigns between 1976 and 2008, debates rarely altered voter support for a Republican or Democratic vice-presidential candidate by more than a percentage point or two.

In 2010, a study published in Presidential Study Quarterly confirmed this trend. Between 1968 and 2008, VP candidates influenced less than 1 percent of the cases on whether voters changed their political decisions, meaning those who switched from one party and candidate to the other after the debate.

The Unique Nature of the Upcoming Debate

The debate that takes place on Wednesday, October 7, at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time will be unlike any other past VP debate, however. The circumstances are unique. Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, the country’s crisis, and the fact that both the incumbent and challenger are 74 and 77 years old, respectively, are a clear reminder that either Pence or Harris could find themselves as Commander-in-Chief before the next executive terms finishes in 2024.

Starting with John Adams, who succeeded George Washington in 1797, fourteen Vice Presidents became the Commander in Chief – though for different reasons. A scenario in which either Harris or Pence is next on that list is by no means inconceivable, and hence the stakes for the debate are arguably higher than usual.

What to Expect in This Debate

If last week’s debate was an indicator of what to expect, the public ought to expect carnage. However, anyone expecting the kind of reality show similar to that between Trump and Biden is likely to be disappointed. Harris is going to be aggressive but will not reach a Trumpian standard, nor will Pence counter-attack by telling her to “shut up” or calling her “a clown.” Instead, one might even learn about a political vision, and both participants are potentially able to conclude a sentence – also a pleasant change from the previous week.

For the aforementioned reasons, both candidates are under considerable pressure. Due to Biden’s age, Americans are rightfully interested in whether Harris is presidential material. During the debate, Harris hence needs to conduct a balancing act. One the one hand, she needs to utilize her rhetorical skills but has to exude a certain (presidential) gravitas. On the other hand, this accomplished immigrants’ daughter has to motivate other people of color to vote. That, in turn, requires aggressiveness.

Hitting Pence in His Weak Spot

Harris’ agenda is likely to expose Pence’s primary handicap. Since April, as head of the White House’s coronavirus task force, he has regularly forecasted that the pandemic would end soon. In May, he spoke of “enormous progress” in the fight against the virus. In the meantime, more than 200,000 Americans have now died of COVID-19 and, since last week, various Trump staffers and other Republicans have contracted the virus after an event in the Rose Garden announcing new SCOTUS pick Amy Coney Barrett. Harris will very likely address all of these topics and more.

Pence is a Skilled Debater and Politician

With that being said, Pence also has several advantages over Harris. After four years at Trump’s side, he has tremendous experience with key political challenges, particularly those related to the economy and foreign policy. Moreover, Pence has already had a vice-presidential debate. In 2016 he debated Tim Kaine and distinguished himself as a veritable candidate who knew how to defend the then-presidential candidate Trump skillfully.

Pence has been a highly talented politician throughout his career, and he certainly does not consider the vice presidency to be the apogee of his career. One can anticipate him to continuously reiterate not only on Trump’s success but also on his role, all to establish himself as a future president – and it will be on Harris to poke holes in that narrative.

Two Competing Perspectives

Harris cannot win a debate on experience. She has only been in Washington since 2017, marginalized in a Republican-controlled Senate. She appeared in debates when she ran for Senator and Attorney General and the Democratic Primaries. However, the bottom line is that Harris runs on talent and prospects, not on experience and policy success.

For Harris, Wednesday is a casting in which she is not merely advocating for Biden and his presidential qualities, but for herself and the possible scenario of becoming the first female and African-American president in American history. On the other hand, Pence will do his utmost best to defend Donald Trump and the status quo – also with at least one eye on the actual potential prize: the presidency.