VP debate winner: How to tell who’s winning the Harris-Pence showdown

What does winning look like? Can a person look "vice presidential," and, if they could, would they want to?  

Graig Graziosi
Wednesday 07 October 2020 23:19
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Joe Biden taps Mike Pence on the shoulder and gives Karen Pence elbow bump at 9/11 memorial
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While the point of a debate should be to educate its audience, the unfortunate reality of political debates in the US is that, ultimately, they are more sport than they are scholastic.  

A presumed "winner" of a presidential or vice presidential debate can boost voter excitement and attract new or existing donors to toss needed funds into a campaign's war chest.  

In a presidential debate, the metrics for determining a "winner" can be reduced to a very simple idea: who seems more presidential?  

With the vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and his challenger, Democratic Senator Kamala Harris, set to take place on Wednesday, determining which candidate has the upper hand may be more difficult.  

What does winning look like? Can a person look "vice presidential," and, if they could, would they want to?  

Both candidates in the 2020 US election are well over 70-years-old, and one is recovering from a recent battle with Covid-19.

As a result, examining the vice presidents - who are "one heartbeat away from the presidency" - may be more important in the 2020 US election than ever before in the nation's history.

During a presidential debate, candidates want to appear confident, in control, strong and comforting. They should strive to put the broader US public at ease.  

However, after last week's chaotic debate between Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden - during which Mr Trump frequently attacked and interrupted Mr Biden and showed complete disregard to the moderator, Chris Wallace - it would be difficult to argue that anyone outside of the president's legion of adoring supplicants were especially comforted or made confident in the aftermath.  

As a result, debate and rhetoric scholars expect the debate between Mr Pence and Ms Harris will be a race to see who can appear the most civil, stable and comforting by the end of the event.  

"I expect the vice presidential nominees will be a lot more calm," Dr Tammy Vigil, associate professor of communication at Boston University and an author on political rhetoric, said. "I think there will be some push back if there's disagreements, they'll be open, but they won't be as disagreeable as we saw in the first debate, so we'll get some assertion, some questioning, some push back, from candidates."  

Dr Vigil said that Wednesday's debate will likely be a departure from the norm for vice presidential debates.  

She argued that vice presidential debates tend to be where things get dirty; since they aren't the ones voters are actually voting for, they're a bit more insulated from alienating voters and are thus more free to go on the offensive.  

"Historically, vp debates are considered the attack debate. They have a more fluid role and don't have to look as presidential, so they're considered attack dogs," Dr Vigil said. "They're the debates where we'd normally see more direct attacks, aggressive language, assertions of quality of leadership, etc."

She said that due to the chaotic and aggressive first presidential debate, Americans will look to the vice presidential debate for some semblance of normalcy.

"This time people are looking for a display of leadership and policies and political leadership philosophy. I think we're flipping the expectation for these debates, where the vp candidates will show maturity and understanding."  

Even if the first presidential debate hadn't gone off the rails, it's likely the vice presidential debate would have taken on a more somber and civil tone than past debates.  

With both candidates in their 70's and one fresh out of a days-long stint in the hospital with the coronavirus, it's not unreasonable for Americans to wonder if their vice presidential options will become their president before 2024.

"The potential that these candidates might ascend into the Oval Office is more front of mind for people at this point in time," Dr Vigil said. "People are going to be looking at what these candidates would be if they ascended. It's always been a question when considering vice presidents, but it's become a much more serious consideration at this stage, especially considering Trump's health."

So how does a candidate win in a nontraditional political debate?  

"I think in this debate, we'll see a vp nominee who's winning being the one who is calming the waters and communicating a clear vision as to what they want for an American future," Dr Vigil said.

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