Opinion

Why you should watch the vice presidential debate — and what to watch for

October 6, 2020 5:53 pm

Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris are scheduled to debate from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday. (Illustration from Getty Images and official White House file photos)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Diana B. Carlin is a retired communication studies professor at the University of Kansas who has published two books on citizens’ reactions to presidential debates.

After what was decidedly the worst general election presidential debate in history, many people might forego the vice presidential sequel. However, there are reasons to watch.

Before giving them, a few words on the presidential fiasco. First, the format was not the problem. A format with six themes for 15 minutes each started in 2012 with the Barack Obama-Mitt Romney debates. Previously there were debates with five minutes of open discussion after initial responses. In all instances, there were very few interruptions and both candidates respected the format, the moderator and, most importantly, the voters.

Even in 2016, there were far fewer interruptions. Chris Wallace might have been stronger in enforcing the rules and could have structured more formal rebuttal time. Given President Donald Trump’s game plan (71 of the 90 interruptions) to unnerve Vice President Joe Biden, nothing might have worked. Having a mute button makes sense — it’s something that’s been recommended by my focus groups since 1992, when the vice presidential debate resembled a food fight between Al Gore and Dan Quayle with Admiral Stockdale standing between watching the volleys, and again in 2000 when Al Gore sighed while George W. Bush spoke.

Second, neither candidate was especially presidential. What my focus group research over 28 years shows is that viewers are looking for how the candidates will “enact” the presidency or display presidential character. Biden was stronger, but he was the first one to interrupt, and telling Trump to “shut up” and calling him a “clown” was not very presidential. Post-debate data indicates that viewers were able to glean presidential characteristics and policy positions. Many participants in the virtual DebateWatch groups my students led afterward did learn something. It was difficult to ferret out the actual policy positions because the candidates could not always give complete responses, but they did articulate distinct positions.

Finally, this debate is a mirror on our current political climate. We are a divided nation and we do not know how to engage in civil political discourse. Social media is full of rude comments about politicians and other social media users. Going back 30 years to “The McLaughlin Group” and “Crossfire,” cable news has pitted the “left” against the “right.” We have very few models of what civility looks like. The primary debates are designed to boost ratings, and networks want them to create drama and one-liners. That’s the format on which the president cut his political teeth and largely contributed to, and in which Biden engaged for numerous primary debates. So we should not be surprised that in four years our debate dialogue has degenerated so much.

Still, there are reasons to view future debates.

What might we expect from the debate between Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris if this were a “normal” year? Typically, this debate would be more aggressive than a presidential, but that is unlikely. Instead, both will try to compensate for their running mates, especially Pence, who needs to do so given the 14-point difference in some of the latest national polls.

Vice presidents are a heartbeat away from the presidency, and Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis underscores how quickly a president’s health can change. Eight presidents have died in office, Dwight Eisenhower suffered a major heart attack and Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt. This debate helps answer the question regarding the running mate’s suitability for the highest office in the land. With two of the oldest candidates on the ballot and one recovering from COVID-19, these debates may take on more importance than usual.

Vice presidential candidates usually discuss their roles in the administration. With an incumbent VP, we have a good idea, but with a relative newcomer to national politics, we should learn something about Biden’s plans for Harris. This information provides further insight into how the top of the ticket uses expertise within an administration.

Often vice presidential candidates, especially in the heat of a primary, have said something about the person who is now their running mate that contradicts the top of the ticket’s position or provides fodder for the opponent. These statements often get sorted out in the debate, and we can expect Harris to answer for a few of her previous comments.

Finally, vice presidential candidates can talk about their partners’ qualities in ways the presidential candidates cannot talk about themselves, and they can bolster policy positions and respond to any lingering issues from the first presidential debate.

Debates are not perfect and never will be, but historically they provide far more information than ads or soundbites. Give the 2020 debates another chance. You might be surprised at what you do learn.

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Diana B. Carlin
Diana B. Carlin

Diana B. Carlin is professor emerita of communication at Saint Louis University. She taught a speechwriting course at the University of Kansas and a course on presidential speechwriters for KU’s Osher Institute. She has also taught courses on women and politics at the University of Kansas and is co-author of "Gender and the American Presidency: Nine Presidential Women and the Barriers They Faced," and book chapters on Martha Washington, Lady Bird Johnson, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.

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