After the initial, chaotic debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the clash between their two running mates, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, seemed almost out of date. Both candidates were particularly outstanding at evading questions to sell their prepared positions.
Questions without answers
Moderator Susan Page, bureauchef van USA Today in Washington, gave no advance insight into the themes she wanted to address or the questions she would ask. A total of ten themes were discussed, each with a question for both candidates. They were given two minutes per answer, followed by a free discussion.
The atmosphere was very different from that of the decidedly hostile and unprecedentedly chaotic first debate between Trump and Biden. The candidates were relatively courteous to each other and did not intrude on the other’s reserved speaking time. During the free discussions they did and the exchanges sometimes became a bit more prickly. “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking,” Harris said several times to her opponent.
After about an hour, Page paused the debate to emphasize the need to follow the rules, after both candidates continued to speak a number of times after their speaking time had expired. Vice President Pence, in particular, was sometimes difficult to brake, but Harris was also active.
The debate started with the corona crisis. Harris got off the hook: she described the Trump administration’s approach as the greatest governmental failure in American history. Pence, head of the White House coronavirus task force, defended the policy. In doing so, he expressed his condolences to all American victims of the pandemic.
Both candidates readily used standard avoidance tactics. Moderator Page stressed that Harris and Pence should not interrupt each other, but barely intervened when her questions went unanswered and the candidates brought their pre-prepared discussion points to the fore.
Harris devoted her response to the question of what a Biden administration would do differently to address the corona crisis entirely to attacking the Trump administration’s actions. In turn, Pence said between nose and lips that the American people have a right to transparency when it comes to the health of presidential candidates, to immediately move to a statement of thanks for the support and compassion Trump received following his coronavirus diagnosis.
Pence scored some points by effectively insisting that Team Biden never answered the question of whether the Democrats will increase the number of Supreme Court justices if the Republicans name the highly conservative Amy Coney Barrett as successor to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg . Harris did not answer either, despite repeated urges by the vice president. The Democratic candidate missed the opportunity to point out that just before that her opponent did the same to a question about health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions.
In addition to selling their story to the entire American electorate, the candidates had smaller audiences in mind on several topics. A discussion of fracking, which the Trump campaign falsely claims Biden wants to ban, clearly focused on the population of the pivotal swing state of Pennsylvania. When the trade war with China came up, Harris seized the opportunity to address American farmers, a profession largely belonging to Camp Trump.
Research has shown for years that election debates have a very limited influence on the final outcome, and that is doubly true for vice-presidential debates. Although the clash between Pence and Harris was more substantive than the first presidential debate, there were no major surprises or devastating attacks and many important questions remained unanswered.
Both candidates were reasonably successful in presenting the views of their own campaigns, but are unlikely to have succeeded in luring voters away from the opposing party or convincing floating voters.