After the dreadful initial 2020 presidential debate, there were some who called for the debates to cease. That would have been a mistake because the second debate, a vice-presidential tussle between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, was productive. It resulted in a win for Senator Harris and further momentum for the Biden-Harris campaign.
Going into the debate, California Senator Kamala Harris had three objectives: 1. Introduce herself to the (many) voters who hadn’t seen her before; 2. State the case for Joe Biden as president; and 3. Point out the failings of the Trump-Pence regime. Harris did this and accomplished a fourth equally important objective; she established that while remaining calm and personable, she can defend herself and her running mate. Harris went into the debate the most popular of the four major candidates (Trump, Pence, Biden, and Harris) and emerged even more popular.
During the first presidential debate, Donald Trump interrupted Joe Biden 118 times. Trump’s abrasive strategy was to throw Biden off his game and cause him to have a “senior moment” that Trump could use in his TV ads. Trump’s strategy didn’t work. As a consequence, Trump came off as a bully and Biden as an adult struggling to participate in a normal presidential debate.
During this second debate, Mike Pence interrupted Kamala Harris 15 times. (He also interrupted the female moderator, Susan Paige, several times and ignored her pleas to stop talking because he had run over his alottedtime.) Senator Harris responded politely but firmly: ” “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking.” “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can have a conversation.”
Pence seemed intent on flustering Harris, cause her to lose her temper, and further the “nasty woman” trope. Pence’s strategy didn’t work. Senator Harris kept her cool throughout the debate. As a result, an “instant” CNN poll (https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/07/politics/mike-pence-kamala-harris-vice-presidential-debate-poll/index.html ) found that most observers (59 percent) thought Harris had won the debate. More important, she improved her favorability rating: “In pre-debate interviews, 56% said they had a positive view of Harris — that rose to 63% after the debate. For Pence, his favorability stood at 41% in both pre- and post-debate interviews.” (At 63 percent favorability, Harris is far and away the most “popular” of the candidates.)
To be fair, Senator Harris’ performance was not perfect. For example, she missed a golden opportunity to nail Pence-Trump on their lack of a plan to deal with pre-existing conditions — if the Supreme Court strikes down Obamacare on November 10th.
There are two ways to judge a political debate. One is on technical points; that is, judging it strictly as a debate while ignoring the political context. The other way to judge the debate by considering its political consequences. I’m focusing on the latter.
Coming into the debate. Vice President Mike Pence had a monumental political challenge: His boss, Donald Trump, had lost the previous (presidential) debate and is trailing in the national polls by 10.2 percent. (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/polls/president-general/national/ ) In addition, the Trump-Pence campaign is running out of money (https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/519766-trump-canceling-ads-in-ohio-and-iowa ) and Trump has been unable to campaign after contracting COVID-19. The Trump-Pence campaign needed a big win in the VP debate, something that would change the overall campaign momentum.
Pence didn’t get a big win in the debate. In terms of political consequences, he lost. What most women will remember about the debate is that Mike Pence interrupted Kamala Harris multiple times and disrespected the female debate monitor. (This comes at a time when the Trump campaign is losing female voters to Biden (https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-poll-suburban-women-will-not-vote-for-trump-301130148.html )). Senator Harris held her own with Vice President Pence and came out of the debate looking presidential. (And became more popular.) She defended Joe Biden and avoided any major error.
Senator Harris had three big moments: First, at the beginning of the debate she attacked Trump-Pence on their handling of the pandemic. “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country. And here are the facts. 210,000 dead people in our country in just the last several months. Over 7 million people who have contracted this disease. One in five businesses closed… And here’s the thing, on January 28, the vice president and the president were informed about the nature of this pandemic. They were informed that it’s lethal in consequence, that it is airborne, that it will affect young people and that it would be contracted because it is airborne. And they knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you… The president said it was a hoax.” Pence could not counter this.
Second, Senator Harris stated the obvious: the Trump Administration is trying to cancel Obamacare. “Donald Trump… is in court right now trying to get rid of trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, which means that you will lose protections, if you have pre-existing conditions…. If you have a pre-existing condition, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, they’re coming for you. If you love someone who has a pre existing condition they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents coverage, they’re coming for you.”
The moderator, Susan Page, gave Vice President Pence an opportunity to respond to this: “President Trump says that he’s going to protect people with pre-existing conditions, but he has not explained how he will do that. So, tell us, specifically – how will your administration protect Americans with pre-existing conditions and give access to affordable insurance if the Affordable Care Act is struck down.” Pence never responded.
At the conclusion of the debate, the moderator read a letter from an eighth grade student: “If our leaders can’t get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along? Your examples could make all the difference to bring us together.” Pence responded, “We’re going to work every day to have a government as good as our people.” Harris had a much stronger answer: “What propelled [Joe Biden] to run for president was to see that, over the course of the last four years, what [the student] described has been happening. Joe has a long standing reputation of working across the aisle and working in a bipartisan way. And that’s what he’s going to do as President. Joe Biden has a history of lifting people up and fighting for their dignity.”
Senator Kamala Harris won the vice-presidential debate, providing further momentum for the Biden-Harris campaign.