A Mixed Verdict on America’s Vice Presidential Debate

Partisan Outlets Declared their Preferred Candidate the Victor, While Polling Showed a More Muddled Outcome

On October 7, the only debate between Vice-Presidential nominees Mike Pence of Indiana and Senator Harris of California aired on American national television. By contrast to the September prior debate between President Trump and former Vice President Biden, it received high marks from commentators for its substantive discussion of critical issues. Partisan outlets adopted a traditional posture of declaring their preferred candidate the victor, while polling showed a more muddled outcome. 


Many observers noted that, stylistically, Pence approached the debate in a far more sedate manner than President Trump had. As noted in a debate breakdown by National Public Radio, “Pence's debate style is almost the polar opposite of the president's. He was calm and disciplined and came prepared to paint the Biden-Harris ticket as captive to the extreme left of the Democratic Party, specifically on economic issues.”

Supporters of the Democratic party found much to approve of in Harris’s debate performance. According to Brandon Tensley of CNN, “Democratic California Sen. Kamala Harris' very presence on the plexiglass-partitioned stage on Wednesday night was historic: In August, she became the first Black and South Asian woman, as well as the first graduate of a historically Black college or university, to be chosen as a major party candidate's running mate.” As Tensley put it, “Once again, Black Americans weren't just the backbone of the Democratic Party. They were the face of it, too.”

Conservative media viewed the engagement from a different angle. As Kyle Smith of the National Review put it, “Mike Pence completely dominated the debate, both on substance and style. Harris seemed to have a thin package of talking points focused on COVID and on Trump’s personality, bringing up the greatest hits like re-litigating Trump’s response to Charlottesville more than three years ago. but Pence went after Harris in detail about matters of huge importance.” Smith also echoed a point of critique which garnered considerable traction across the right-of-center media landscape, contending that “Harris’s demeanor — smirking and smiling broadly when she had no riposte to Pence’s calmly articulated but hard-hitting points — could not have helped her.” 

By contrast with both partisan perspectives, professional political operatives saw the affair as an entre to the future of both parties after the Trump era. Democratic operative James Carville put it with characteristic bluntness, labelling the Pence-Harris vice presidential debate the "first debate of the 2024 cycle" in an appearance Wednesday night on MSNBC. “Even if Vice President Biden sat one term and Harris runs -- she's not going to run unopposed, it's going to be a vigorous contest on the Democratic side…. I thought she helped herself more for 2024 than Pence helped himself.”


Polling of such events is a notoriously difficult affair. Nevertheless, CNN instant poll reported that roughly six in ten respondents (59 per cent) labelled Harris the victor of the debate, with some 38 per cent saying the same of Vice President Pence. Most of the respondents to this survey were predisposed towards Harris and the Democrats, with roughly 61 per cent having said in advance that they expected Harris to prevail, as opposed to 36 per cent anticipating a Pence victory. Notably, some 55 per cent in the CNN survey said the debate was unlikely to impact their vote.

Veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz told a rather different story. According to his focus groups of undecided voters — which have historically had significant predictive value in assessing competitive elections — that key demographic found Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris to be "abrasive and condescending" as a matter of personal style. By contrast, this key cohort described Pence as "calm and collected". According to Luntz, “the tone and demeanor of the discussion was exactly what the American people want,” in that the candidates engaged in a vigorous debate on issues, rather than descending into the cruder exchanges of the previous week’s presidential debate. Somewhat surprisingly, in Luntz’s view “the number one question with [undecided voters] is what will happen with the supreme court. Will Joe Biden try to pack the supreme court? Mike Pence did an outstanding job making that an issue yesterday and that is resonating in the minds of the American people today.”