Salt Lake City, Utah: Wednesday’s vice presidential candidate debate is the ninth general election debate I’ve covered since 1996, and in many ways, it is so different from the previous eight.
First off, upon arrival in Salt Lake, taking a COVID-19 test and then going to my hotel for self-quarantine until I’m cleared. Everyone who enters the debate perimeter — a fenced in area encompassing the debate hall and the media tent at the University of Utah — must be tested and cleared before entering, including the candidates, their staff and the smattering of audience members allowed in the hall.
Unlike the first presidential debate, where Trump family members took off their masks after being seated, masks will not be optional at this debate.
The other difference will be the media presence. At the last debate I went to — Trump vs. Clinton in Las Vegas in 2016 — there were more than 6,000 media members in the media room, with thousands from international media outlets. For this debate, media credentials were capped at 200, all of those credentialed will be six feet apart in a giant, airy tent and all interactions with sources will be done one-on-one and socially distanced.
In other ways, however, this debate is not so different than those of previous years.
Every election, and thus every debate, has its own unique dynamics and thus plays a part in the making of the tapestry that eventually evolves into the results on election day. Political science studies have shown that debates — while certainly exciting — have limited impact upon the final result. But that doesn’t mean they have no impact, and even a vice presidential debate can be of great import.
I often argue that Sen. Joe Lieberman, Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, played a major role in costing Gore the presidency with his debate performance. Lieberman decided to be "Mr. Nice Guy" against Dick Cheney at a time when Gore was struggling in his own debates, and the milquetoast performance stalled a presidential campaign that ultimately lost the entire election by 527 votes in Florida.
On the other hand, in 2012, Joe Biden turned in a strong VP debate performance against Paul Ryan after Barack Obama’s somnolent act in the first presidential debate, bringing some positive momentum back to the campaign and reinvigorating Obama’s base.
For this year's VP debate, the pressure is on Vice President Mike Pence. Sure, Sen. Kamala Harris is a historic candidate — the first Black and Asian woman VP nominee of a major party — and she will have to tread carefully in terms of not being seen as cruel when pressing the case against Donald Trump while he is ill with COVID-19, but for the moment, the Biden-Harris ticket has the wind in its sails while Pence is facing two unique challenges.
First, he’s behind. Going into the debate, the polls are showing Trump-Pence down, on average, 7 points. Second, ironically, like Biden had to do in 2012, Pence has to stall the negative momentum resulting from Trump’s over-the-top performance in the first presidential debate, which polls show majorities of voters disapproved of, especially among 65 and older voters, a key demographic.
A winning turn in the VP debate is not a campaign cure-all. In 1988, Lloyd Bentsen delivered the most dramatic and devastating blow in debate history against Dan Quayle ("Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy"), and President George H.W. Bush still cruised to victory.
Sometimes, however, it’s the perfect tonic to steady a teetering campaign, and that’s exactly what Donald Trump needs from his vice president right now.
Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka. He can be reached at email@example.com.