SALT LAKE CITY — Vice presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Mike Pence took to the stage at Kingsbury Hall Wednesday night in hopes of rallying their respective political bases and winning over undecided votes ahead of Election Day.
The debate, which was hosted by USA Today’s Susan Page as the only vice presidential debate of the season, was more civil than the presidential debate a week earlier but generally lacked substantive answers to the questions asked. Still, each candidate likely came away happy with their performance in a mostly cordial and issue-driven debate.
The following are a few takeaways from Wednesday’s debate and what this means for voters.
Winning for the party
The format of the debate allowed for the candidates to score political points without ever really needing to actually debate each other, though that certainly happened throughout the night. Page broke up the hour and a half debate into nine key issues Americans face ahead of Election Day. The candidates were granted two minutes (and in some cases definitely more) to make their case without much interference — and some extra time to further clarify their respective positions.
As a result, Harris and Pence essentially both won the debate — although it really depends on who you ask. Both candidates managed to hit their talking points, prop up their platform and deliver blows to the other party, though there were no real game changer answers — nothing to overwhelmingly confound the other candidate or party. In short, neither candidate messed up or hurt their candidate for president — a massive win for both parties.
For those voters already decided and entrenched in their candidate’s views, the debate served as a win as to why “their” candidate is the right person to be elected for the next four years. But for those individuals still undecided, there was little to sway them to one side or the other. And with little rebuttal, save a few moments later in the debate, most statements went unchecked. By and large, both candidates played it safe.
Dodging the questions
Politicians are known for their subtle answers — give enough to whet the palate, but not too much to get yourself in trouble. And on Wednesday, there was a lot of sidestepping the informative questions presented by Page. As a result, many of the questions posed to the candidates went unanswered or lightly touched on in the course of the debate.
Both candidates were more interested in propping up their respective platform or casting blows toward the other candidates’ platform. This is not unusual in a debate, but there was more dodging and sidestepping Wednesday than is ideal to help inform an American electorate looking to cast their ballot for president, and by extension vice president.
Questions about COVID-19 responsiveness, the economic recovery, the vacant Supreme Court justice seat, foreign allies, racial tensions in America and the role of the vice president, among others, are all valid concerns and have a significant impact on the electorate. By the candidates sidestepping the issues and giving half answers, Americans lose the ability to understand what’s fully at stake and what each candidate will actually do if they hold the office for the next four years.
Still, the responses from Harris and Pence were more informative than those given by President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden in last week’s presidential debate, so at least there was something to gain.
Pandemic remains the key issue
As the Trump Administration recovers from a super spreader event in the Rose Garden at the White House last week, the global pandemic remained a key issue of the debate Wednesday. Even the plexiglass between Harris and Pence served as a reminder of how real the pandemic remains. The coronavirus issue was the first one raised by Page and the most salient given the recent spikes in Utah and elsewhere in the nation. More than 200,000 people have died from the virus in the United States with no real sign of slowing down.
Harris called President Trump’s response to the pandemic the “greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of the country,” while adding that he’s continually minimized the impact of the virus despite knowing about its dangerous effects since before it became a major issue in the United States. She contended that Trump, and Pence who leads the coronavirus task force, “still don’t have a plan.”
“Frankly, this administration has forfeited its right to reelection,” Harris said, while adding that Biden has a plan and would take immediate federal action to ensure the safety of all Americans once elected.
But Pence fired back and claimed Harris was “playing politics with people’s lives,” while adding doubt to an already established plan by the administration to ensure Americans are looking out for each other and following safety guidelines without federal mandates.
The issue remained a common thread throughout the debate and will likely be one of the biggest challenges facing whoever occupies the office for the next four years. How each candidate sees the issue will have an impact on the response moving forward.
With all the sidestepping and overstepping of the allotted time granted to each candidate, it was a fly that stole the show. After about an hour of the debate, a fly landed in Pence’s white hair, and judging by all the social media buzz — including a couple of “Mike Pence Fly” Twitter accounts that quickly popped up — it’s all anyone could remember from the night.
Is that a good thing? I’m not so sure given that a debate is meant to help inform the electorate.
Instead, we’re left with a fly as the symbol of Wednesday night’s show. But to be fair to past debates, there’s oftentimes one thing that steals the show and is all people will remember. Just ask former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney about his “binders full of women” or 2012 presidential hopeful Rick Perry’s “oops” comment after he couldn’t remember a third agency of the government he was talking about in a Republican primary debate.
So while not uncommon to have a diversion from the actual policies discussed, it doesn’t help candidates woo undecided voters when all they remember is the distraction. Still, the fly made its mark and will likely be a part of some Saturday Night Live sketch in the future.