As President Trump returned from the hospital and the White House reeled with the diagnosis of numerous staffers and allies, Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Pence came together at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah for the only vice presidential debate of 2020.
The weight of President Trump’s diagnosis weighed on Pence’s performance and Senator Harris needed to capitalize on having national attention. Candidates sat six feet apart while separated by plexiglass. They were moderated by Susan Page of USA Today as they discussed topics like COVID-19, trade agreements and fracking.
As the debate began, select members from Affinity Magazine’s’s political team gathered together for a roundtable.
Helen: Vice President Pence was one of few top members of the Trump Administration who has not been diagnosed with COVID-19. How do you think the president’s recent release from the hospital and the many staffers with COVID impacted the night? Did Pence handle and address this aptly?
Sophia: Personally, I went into this debate desiring a bigger response about the COVID-19 breakout happening in the White House. It’s a huge, gaping issue taking place in our country right now, and I was underwhelmed by the response—especially because Pence is both the leader of the COVID task force and was present at the superspreader event. Obviously, COVID was and continues to be the issue, given our current circumstances, but I was disappointed at the lack of substantial policy and ideas presented on both sides. This is especially true for Pence. I’m also puzzled as to why Senator Harris was so sparse with her responses on the matter; it’s clear the Biden/Harris team has developed a comprehensive plan worth sharing. Had she shared more COVID-19 policy, it would’ve added to her performance tonight. The discussion of the pandemic felt more like a dispersing of thoughts and prayers, which we all know has never been enough to solve our problems. Pence’s approach to the COVID questions were convoluted and not based in scientific fact. He skirted around every opportunity he had to take responsibility for the tragic deaths that have occurred in America due to COVID over the past 7 months.
Joanna: I think that the president’s recent release from the hospital helped someone– but that someone wasn’t Mike Pence. I would argue that COVID-19 was one of Kamala Harris’s strongest sections, and it was primarily because of the Trump administration’s irresponsibility when handling the pandemic. It truly shows that Mike Pence’s response wasn’t good– and he was the leader of the task force, so that speaks miles. He couldn’t even defend his own record as the leading task force member, except by saying that 2 million Americans could have died… which doesn’t really work. Pence pulled the typical Trump administration tactic here, that they restricted access from China, but let’s remember that they were all very aware that this was an issue beginning in late 2019 early 2020, so this is not exactly amazing (especially with the Woodward tape release.) So, on the COVID-19 front, Kamala Harris was right in working in the information the administration had following this. However, she wasn’t right in leaving out crucial details of Biden’s plan, like mask mandates or other issues. I think it’s strange that she dodged those questions because they would’ve strengthened her case. But overall, I’d hand the COVID-19 win to Kamala Harris because Pence couldn’t come up with good points to defend his handling of COVID-19.
— USA TODAY Graphics (@usatgraphics) October 7, 2020
Helen: Different, but interesting points. Also, as a fact check: Pence said the event was outdoors, while it was partially outdoors. The Presidential Debate gained a lot of attention. Do you think this debate better served the U.S. public? In what ways, why or why not?
Joanna: No, this debate in my mind was equally bad. Both candidates dodged things left and right– with Harris, this came with her dodging the court packing question (which Biden has refused to open up to, so she couldn’t really say anything) and strangely swayed take on climate change (is she Green New Deal? Yes? No?) With Pence, it came through dodging many issues, climate, Russia, other things. I don’t think any decided voter is going to be switching views. There was little substance, a lot of record defending from Harris, and a lot of lying from Pence (such as when he said his administration didn’t dissolve the pandemic task force Obama implemented.) I don’t think this debate will have a huge impact on people. Not to mention, Pence interrupting the moderator left and right and asking his own questions. What was that? I don’t think that helped anyone.
Sophia: Tonight’s Vice Presidential debate was certainly a more dignified example of what a debate should be, but at the end of the day, this was still more about party politics than policy. It wasn’t as interesting or outrageous of an event to watch, but it felt like a reinvention of last week’s attacks on the names of each candidate and their previous actions, not current and future policy. The intention of these debates is to educate the American public on platform, but all we got tonight were emotional appeals to our vote and not-so-subtle criticism of the other party’s candidate, based on personality. Neither VP candidate was willing to answer questions with straightforward responses, leading me to agree that this debate isn’t going to be the reason why voters do or don’t change their minds. If anything, the fly that landed on Pence’s head will be the most memorable moment of tonight’s debate.
Helen: Pence maintained eye contact with the camera and spoke in a soft voice. Still, he used similar language and tactics, like ignoring the moderator, favored by President Trump in the presidential debate. Do you think this combination worked? Did it differ from the impact of Trump’s tactics?
Joanna: Yeah, it worked. For the average listener, I think they’d be impressed with Pence. While he was still spewing misinformation left and right, the way he came across was so calm and collected that this likely impressed more viewers. It differs because with Trump, you could tell that he was on edge, while with Pence, his lies flowed just as well as his truths, so there was no difference in mannerisms, and thus his lies weren’t getting the same amount of attention. When undecided voters in Florida were being questioned about the two debate performances, many described Pence as “comfortable” and “presidential,” while Harris’s more emotional, tense performance led people to think she was “evasive” and “rehearsed.” I think that this is Pence’s greatest win for the day. If you were even briefly educated in policy, you could likely differentiate and see Pence’s shortcomings, but for the average listener, who relies on debates to learn things, Pence probably came off as more truthful. Will this impact anything though? I have doubts.
However, on this note, Trump does struggle a lot with one group of voters: women. Will women like seeing Pence interrupting both the female VP candidate and the female moderator? I don’t see him scoring any points in this performance. To be honest, Pence needed to use this performance to move people who weren’t already on his side, and his treatment of the females on stage was far from pretty.
Sophia: So, Trump’s tactics—if you want to call them that—were blatantly disrespectful and childish last week. Pence retained a level of civility and professionalism, which certainly appeared better on a surface level, but the content of his speech was just as alarming as the things said by President Trump last week. If anything, I felt more unsettled by Pence’s calm approach, I think it gave the Trump Administration a much-needed polish and air of preparedness. However, for viewers who were more focused on more than just optics, Pence’s talking points and “zingers” did not seem well-suited for tonight’s debates, causing him to seem less than authentic. Not to mention, his talking over Senator Harris and moderator were low points for Pence, who repeatedly had to be told he was out of time. In that regard, his calm and composed politician façade cracked.
Helen: Good points. Going into the debate many were looking forward to seeing Senator Harris utilize her skills as a prosecutor. Did this happen and do you think she was an effective debater tonight?
Joanna: I don’t think Harris was as effective as I thought she was going to be. There were a lot of missed opportunities for her tonight. She was actually pressed pretty hard by Pence in a variety of categories (including the climate change section, which was big.) There was an article about how women in debates are often held to higher standards, and I’m not sure, but I feel like some of that pressure got to Kamala Harris tonight. We’ve seen her at her best, and that’s when she uses her personal experiences to tell compelling narratives that support her beliefs (Joe Biden and busing, circa one of the first debates.) But, this tactic wasn’t effective today. Instead of honing in on particular anecdotes or policy points, Harris relied on a lot of resume listing and dodging particular questions. She dodged some pretty simple questions, like whether or not she talked to Joe Biden about protocol in case he succumbs to illness, and whether she’d want to keep California pro-choice if Roe v. Wade was appealed. I don’t understand why she was evasive on many different topics. And, since women are held to higher standards when debating, I can’t help but think that these more rehearsed sounding responses and fumbling could make her less popular.
Sophia: I was very impressed by Senator Harris’ performance tonight. I think there were certainly moments where she could’ve gone in for the kill on Pence and the Trump Administration (re: COVID), but in terms of her auditory and visual performance, she was dignified and sharp when she needed to be, if a little reserved at moments. The sad thing about it is that, though she kept herself collected, I’m sure she’s still going to catch heat from viewers for being “negative” or “unlikable” for being professional. By virtue of being a woman, Kamala Harris is going to be criticized for her performance tonight no matter what, unfortunately. With that said, I think, given the immense amount of pressure and scrutiny she’s under, I think she carried her weight pretty well. I’ll be the first to say that I think she’s an articulate, professional voice for Biden’s campaign. Put up against Trump and Pence, Harris outdid them all, even if she wasn’t at her strongest.
Helen: Very intuitive. Pence denied systemic racism, but he brought up Harris’ record, including her work as a prosecutor. What do you think this said about or meant for his approach tonight?
Sophia: Oh gosh. Yeah, I was definitely uncomfortable with his overt denial of systemic racism, but that’s not anything new. However, I was intrigued at his calling out of Harris’ record, which, compared to his points made about systemic racism, seemed confused. I know his intention was to call attention to Harris’ notably imperfect record as a prosecutor, but that didn’t feel like the move for him after denying systemic racism. I think his comments on both topics also brought to light his intention to provoke Harris, which worked to a low degree. His comments about her record did solicit a response from Harris, but it definitely wasn’t the night’s biggest moment, where, in another year, it probably could’ve been. All in all, very interesting, very contradictory sentiments put across by the current Vice President.
Joanna: When Pence brought up Harris’s prosecutor record, I thought this would be a repeat of Tulsi Gabbard’s attack, and I was thinking Harris would fall down in this issue again. I don’t know what happened, but I don’t think Pence was effective. It’s probably because of the racism that has happened during the Trump administration, along with President Trump’s refusal to call out white supremacy last debate. The points that Pence brought up to try and make himself seem like the more fair racial justice president fell very short. Harris’s prosecutor record is likely a bigger target (and was) during the Democratic primaries, when there were candidates who could actually show for more productive and inclusive records. But, with Mike Pence, it’s difficult to attack on a prosecutor record when the overall record of your administration, from Charlottesville all the way to Trump literally tear gassing protestors for a photo-op, has centered so much around racism. I think Mike Pence tried to use the prosecutor record to bring Harris down, just like her competitors in the Democratic primary did, but it just didn’t make sense in the context of his administration.
Helen: Ah, yes the Gabbard argument and the recent Proud Boy “stand by” statements were present on many minds. Do you think Harris missed an opportunity by not going after Pence’s own record, or was it strategic? Did Pence miss a chance by not bringing up Biden and Harris’ dynamic during the democratic debates?
Joanna: It was a huge mistake for Kamala Harris to not hammer the point home that Mike Pence led the COVID-19 task force, the same one that has affected 34 people in the White House, more than three countries combined. She should’ve taken off at the first section and ran with it, but she didn’t. COVID-19 is undoubtedly one of the top issues on American minds, and the fact that she didn’t go after his record fully was a huge missed opportunity. I don’t think Pence made a mistake by avoiding talking about Biden/Harris tension. I mean, all the Republican candidates also went after each other in their 2016 campaigns but now many of them are close Trump allies. Obviously Harris and Biden were going to have some issues there, because that’s what the primary was about. But Biden was picked, and now they are united as a party, and that only makes sense, he would’ve come off as foolish had he talked about this.
Sophia: On Harris’ part, I think she easily could’ve struck harder. Her hesitance/lack of call out on Pence’s record was disappointing at best, especially because of his failure on the COVID task force and subtle regurgitation of All Lives Matter-esque sentiments. I wanted to see a little more fire from Harris in that regard and was let down. For Pence, however, his not bringing up the democratic debates was a good move. At this point, to bring up the Biden/Harris dynamic from before seems unnecessary and irrelevant, especially because there’s no changing either of their places in the Democratic Party at this point.
Helen: Yes, very reminiscent of Mike Pence’s exacerbation of the HIV crisis in Indiana. Harris kept bringing the conversation back to Vice President Biden. Why do you think this is, and was it a good tactic?
Joanna: I wish that she didn’t. Though, I’ll start with the positives, it was a VERY powerful closing statement because Biden is well known for bridging gaps and reaching across the aisle. He is well respected by many Republicans and Democrats. So on the unity question, a great use of Biden. But, in terms of other things, I think Kamala has great and powerful, inspiring parts of her identity that she didn’t capitalize on enough. She is Black, Indian American, and a woman. Amazing things that she covered up by talking about Biden. This is the VICE PRESIDENTIAL debate, and maybe more important because both presidential candidates are pretty old. She could’ve taken time in this debate to really identify with women and POC around the United States, and take time to highlight who she is. She should’ve talked about bills she passed and her experiences, and for racial injustice, it would’ve been powerful to hear stories with her own experiences against racial injustice. If she hammered Pence as hard as she hammered Biden, she would be in a much more comfortable position right now. For younger girls and younger POC looking to serve, having her talk about her own experiences would’ve really sold people more I think, especially as critics are hailing her performance as rigid. I read something once about how, in 2016, Clinton’s numbed treatment of feminism made her unpopular amongst modern feminists. I’m thinking that Kamala Harris’s performance is more similar to the moves Clinton tried to pull then too.
Sophia: At the end of the day, she’s Biden’s VP. While I would’ve liked to hear more of her opinions and her side on certain issues (court packing, perhaps??) I think she made the right call pulling it back to Biden. He’s the presidential candidate on the ballot, she’s speaking to promote herself and his platform. It did feel like an excessive choice at times, but I understand the importance of reminding the American people that she’s speaking to Biden’s character and the points they’ve both established as part of his platform. I will say, I think this tactic worked in her favor whenever she used it to get more personal about Biden—or Joe, as she affectionately said. The friendly demeanor she used to talk about the things the two have been collaborating on and are planning for their administration added emotional ties to statements that could’ve otherwise seemed robotic. I also appreciated her use of Biden as a unifying figure—someone who will bridge gaps between party lines, not divide them. All in all, I understand why she kept bringing him up, and for the most part, I respect that decision. In a world where she had more time to elaborate on herself, I would’ve loved to hear her speak more to her own accomplishments as a woman of color on that stage, but alas.
Helen: Good point, though it did combat some of the initial concerns people voiced regarding Harris having her eyes on her personal political future (which could be arguably considered unfair). Sophia, that leads into the next question – Harris would not give an answer regarding court packing and the Biden campaign has said they will not respond to this. Do you think the Biden camp will have to make a statement on this at some point?
Joanna: No, I don’t think the Biden campaign should ever make a clear cut case on court packing. They will be attacked either way. It’s best for them to just stay out of the whole thing. I think my only question would be how possible dodging this question will be. I feel like this has become such a key part of the Trump campaign and I’m not sure if Biden can dodge this any longer. It was frustrating to see Harris unwilling to answer to court packing, then saying she would and then re-dodging the question. I’m not sure why she stayed on the topic and looped back to it if she never intended to answer it. I feel like after this performance from Harris, it might not be smart to continually dodge this issue anymore. I’m sure we’ll be seeing this issue being pressed if there is another presidential debate, it is one of the main fear mongering techniques the Trump campaign is using.
Sophia: If they did make a statement on it, I think it would be to appease GOP critics, which leads me to say the statement would be unlikely. There’s obviously been a lot of animosity lately about the Supreme Court, but to be honest with you, the only people who are questioning if the Biden administration would pack the courts are members of the GOP, and I don’t necessarily think that voters are as concerned with the political pull of SCOTUS as republicans in Washington are. Should the Biden team release a statement, there’s no way it would fly on either side of the political aisle, especially this close to the election. Simply put, making a statement will make the issue matter to voters, where it isn’t necessarily a huge concern now. While the issue of packing the court has come up twice now to no avail, I think it’s being used as more of a tactic to incite concern in supporters on the Trump administration’s end because of how hot of a topic the Supreme Court is.
Helen: Pence was throwing out a lot of mischaracterizations, false statements and complete non sequiturs when foreign policy and climate change were discussed. Do you think Harris and the moderation addressed this enough?
Joanna: I think that in Harris’s attempt to both be a fact checker and a debate participant, she lost some of the energy she should’ve guided into her debate performance. I think that this was part of the Pence debate strategy. The fact that he was so calm, even when he was lying, made it so that Harris felt she needed to justify and counter every lie, and that was taxing, coupled with the fact that she was also debating him. I feel like debates need to have a fact checker going forward, since this really hasn’t been an issue (lying in debates, I mean) until these last 2 decades or so. Putting the responsibility on candidates to fact check makes it difficult to have substantial conversations on actual policy. No, the moderator didn’t talk about this enough, but to be fair, it isn’t her responsibility. Candidates just shouldn’t be lying in debates. It’s insane. And, to the passive viewer, Pence was likely coming off as a winner considering that these topics made Kamala Harris more flustered.
Sophia: Oh, not at all. I think the foreign policy and climate change portion of tonight’s debates were by far the most frustrating parts because it became less about discussing the issue and more about which side of the aisle is “right.” Pence’s points, indeed, mostly false, were all thrown out to counter whatever Senator Harris had said. To voters, there were no productive conversations about foreign and climate change policy because it wasn’t about foreign and climate change policy. It was about being “right” or using buzzwords to incite support in voters, and that desire from Pence caused most of his statements to have no truth to them. This was a massive opportunity lost by Harris, although, had she attacked Pence’s points harder, I’m sure he would’ve come back with more catchphrases to affirm to voters that his and Trump’s point of view is the correct point of view. But also, to both sides, when will we admit that fracking is terrible for the environment and should not be your strongest environmental platform point…
Helen: Excellent point. Pence was pushing misinformation regarding mail-in voting, similar to what was shared during the presidential debate. Do you think it’s more harmful than it is productive to ask questions about the subject of the transfer of powers?
Sophia: I think it’s a dangerous question to ask, as it suggests the idea that Trump can defy the peaceful transfer of power altogether. Yes, he’s suggested the idea of a coup or refusing to transfer power more than once—which is incredibly disturbing—but asking that question during a debate doesn’t solicit the kind of answer the American public is looking for. Both times the transfer of power question has been asked, a straightforward answer has been avoided, which suggests to me that it just isn’t worth it to ask anymore. While I understand that Trump’s ambiguity about the subject is concerning, I don’t think the national debate stage is the place to talk about it, especially when no candidate is going to even begin to answer the question.
Joanna: The transfer of powers question shouldn’t even be an issue. There should be a smooth transition of power, and it’s strange to say there wouldn’t be one. I think that this question is only inciting harm at this point, it’s getting voters riled over something that should be a smooth tradition. These questions are just making the parties polarized amongst each other, and no party wants to be running on accusations of election tampering or meddling. I feel like this would never be a topic in any year, and I think this is just another fear mongering technique on behalf of the Trump administration. The claims are not founded in any sort of proof, and Kayleigh couldn’t even justify what river had a lot of ballots floating down it last week. All of the transfer of power and dangerous election mail talk is just to soften whatever potential blow might be coming. Remember, in 2016, Trump called everything rigged until he won. Then, there was a whole claim about how he wasn’t tampering with the election. Just a lot of hypocrisy here.
Give that fly a SAG Award.
— dan levy (@danjlevy) October 8, 2020
Helen: Finally, who do you think won tonight’s debate?
Joanna: I think the question of who won comes in three different answers. Firstly, the fly was just the overall comical high point of this disastrous debate. The fly is the MVP. Ok, now onto the other two answers. Mike Pence won in terms of who was more persuasive, tone wise. After last week’s wrestling match, I think every American was ready to see a nice, quieter debate. And Pence did that. He didn’t have Trump’s edginess or anger– he came in with poise and was collected through all the good and all the bad. He was miles above Harris with his calmer demeanor. For the passive listener, this likely constituted a strong win. But, let’s look at why Kamala Harris would have won. If you took the time to listen beyond tone and have followed the administration for any period of time between 2017 and now, you can already see through a lot of what Mike Pence was saying up there. Like me, you’re probably also more understanding of why Kamala Harris was so flustered tonight. She was faced with an outright tsunami of lies. If you pay attention to policy and truths, Kamala Harris wins over Pence, even with the tenser, more nervous tone. The biggest losers of tonight are once again, the American people, because I doubt anyone came out of this debate learning anything substantially new. And, Susan Page. She is one of the more respected print journalists, and I think this proved that print journalists can’t exactly moderate debates well. Broadcast journalists are used to reclaiming their time and are willing to shout (I mean, Chris Wallace did poorly but, he was very good at holding his ground.) Susan Page couldn’t replicate that type of success. I’m a little scared for how poorly both these moderators have done thus far, because it makes me question who can handle upholding a civilized debate, especially in an administration that is particularly critical of journalists and press freedoms. This debate was maybe an ounce better than the debate from last week, but it wasn’t substantive and left me (just like last week) not wanting to listen to any more. Overall, does the Vice Presidential debate matter? In the long run, I don’t think this debate will be changing anyone’s minds. Mike Pence and Kamala Harris both performed well enough to uphold their party bases. As for the few remaining undecided voters, it really depends on how closely they listened.
Sophia: Personally, I thought Senator Harris won the debate, but only to trained viewers who value policy over appearance. Pence came across as astonishingly composed and seemingly prepared, from a political point of view, which was a drastic change from Trump’s performance last week. I would say that, for casual viewers, his dignity, compared to President Trump’s, was on full display and a tolerable look into a more professional side of the Trump campaign. However, for me personally, Harris’ approach to the questions she answered and the light in which she framed Biden’s campaign were important facets to furthering the momentum of their campaign as a unifying and inclusive one, overall. While, yes, she admittedly wasn’t at her strongest, she was elegant, composed, and a striking, incredible image of what a powerful woman of color in politics can be. As a final thought, tonight’s debate was certainly easier to watch than last week’s, but not by much. What the Vice President candidates lacked in uncalled for outbursts and talking over each other, they made up for in avoiding the questions being asked of them and not-so-covert side eyes at each other. I’m eager to see how the Presidential candidates will perform at their next debate following tonight, if there is one, of course.
Helen: This concludes our Affinity Magazine vice presidential debate roundtable, thank you for joining us. Affinity’s staff believed that Harris won the night, with 100% of the vote.
Moderator: Helen Ehrlich Affinity’s Co-Social Media Manager. She is also a Politics and Music writer at the magazine.
Joanna Hou is a Politics and Books writer at the magazine, as well as a social media intern.
Sophia Moore is a Culture and Political writer at the magazine.