Vice Presidential Debate Could Be Most Watched Ever But Few Will Have a Change of Heart

October 7, 2020 by Dan McCue
Members of the production crew stand in on the stage near plexiglass barriers which will serve as a way to protect the spread of COVID-19 as preparations take place for the vice presidential debate at the University of Utah, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Salt Lake City. The vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is scheduled for Oct. 7. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Tonight’s debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris will likely be the most-watched vice presidential debate ever, but it’s unlikely to dramatically change the minds of viewers, according to an academic steeped in debate and cultural studies.

“Both vice presidential candidates will do their best to do clean-up for the top of the ticket,” said Christian Lundberg, a professor of debate and critical thinking at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Polling and focus group data after the first presidential debate showed that folks thought that President Trump was aggressive and undisciplined and that former Vice President Joe Biden was comparatively composed but not as sharp as he could have been in responding to the president’s attack,” he said.

“I expect Harris will be a sharp and focused attacker, as Biden himself found out during the primary debates, and that Pence will be a model of messaging discipline,” Lundberg continued. “He’ll try to convey an ethos that balances or complements the president’s reputation as a counterpuncher or brawler.

“The sad thing about our political moment is that very few will come out of watching the debate having changed their minds either way,” he added. “Of course, a big gaffe or epic moment could drive attention by some groups — and the presidential debate showed how consequential voter perceptions of debates could be.”

Lundberg said the biggest challenge for Harris and Pence tonight will not be to lower the temperature in the room and concentrate their debate on the issues, but rather “to translate some of last week’s presidential debate ‘heat’ into a sharp narrative about the problems the nation faces, what should be done about them, and what that means at the ballot box.”

Asked if the president’s coming down with the coronavirus — and it subsequently racing through the West Wing staff — might make it trickier to pound the administration on its response to the pandemic, Lundberg said in the current political climate, the answer is no.

“The Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans, circulated a .gif of the President laboring to breath with the pop song, ‘I Am Barely Breathing’ dubbed over it. We are already pretty partisan and polarized, and if it means anything anymore, ‘now the gloves are off.'”

Lundberg said if the coronavirus outbreak at the White House has any affect on tonight’s debate, it’ll be in how it changes the “moves” each side makes.

“The president’s supporters will say, ‘Look, the President bested it. He is living proof we can’t live in fear. The Democrats are playing politics with the virus response,'” he said. “Critics of the administration will wish the president and the first lady well, and then will pivot to talking about the rest of America, reading a laundry list of claims about the pandemic response, touching on everything from the budget cutting for the pandemic preparedness office, to Trump’s downplaying the virus, to his comments on injecting bleach, etc.

“Either way, the stakes are too high and the bounty too large for the party that controls the narrative around COVID for anyone to let up on the attack,” Lundberg said. “And, the president’s posture of declaring victory over his own case of COVID seals the deal on this question. I don’t think any side can back off on their narrative at this point.”

Though the volume on the debate stage will no doubt be lower tonight than it was a week ago during the presidential debate, Lundberg suggested that anyone expecting a 90-minute dissertation on “policy” will likely be disappointed.

“Pence has been trained to focus on disciplined messaging that contrasts values, setting up praise for the administration and lines of attack for the Biden campaign. Details about policy will appear insofar as they support those goals,” he said. “But very few debate exchanges by any side in any political debate are really about policy for policy’s sake. The only perceived difference is the skill of the debaters in framing their answers.”

So what would a professional debate teacher be advising the participants as they prepare for what, given the president’s health, could be the last debate of the election cycle for the top of the ticket?

“When it comes to Pence, the main thing I’d stress is that he be disciplined in defending the places where the administration had demonstrable successes — especially the limited ones on COVID,” he said.

“I’ll also advise him to press the attack on Biden being ‘dragged to the left’ by the most radical elements of his party,’ using it to gin up the base on the issues that matter to them.”

As for Harris, Lundberg said he’d advise her to “press the attack on COVID the whole debate, using it to frame other issues, including health care and racial/social equity.”

“In other words, I’d tell her to use COVID as a tool to frame these and other issues, and to use it as a value-based punch line,” he said. “For example, ‘The GOP wants to rush the confirmation of the president’s Supreme Court nominee to pack the court with folks who are friendly to the idea of repealing the Affordable Care Act and removing protections on pre-existing conditions. That means you’ll be without health care in the age of COVID …'”

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