The 30 Minutes That Matter
Last night marked the 32nd Presidential or Vice Presidential debate that I remember closely watching and there are several trends that persist. First, and most importantly, viewer responses are typically very subjective. As America becomes more polarized, the vast majority of people tuning in are doing so as fans rooting for their team and against the other— much like an NFL game (without a scoreboard). If anyone you know watched last night and said “Kamala crushed Pence” or “Pence owned the lib,” it’s important to note they were not the target audience from either campaign.
The second trend that’s damn near universal? Whichever side is complaining about the moderator is probably losing. When your team isn’t winning, it must be the referee’s fault! While Chris Wallace (debate 1) and Susan Page (debate 2) failed to control the candidates, what is the alternative? Would you expect either of them to lower their shoulders and tackle any of the four most powerful people on earth for interrupting or talking too long? It’s up to the viewers to judge how the candidates comport themselves. It’s frustrating to watch them bob and weave, but unless we sit both candidates on dunk tanks and plunge them into cold water when they break the rules, we have no choice but to deal with it.
With that, let’s discuss last night’s debate. Keep in mind, this is an opinion piece and I’m giving you mine. It’s shaped by my own experiences as a former Republican and Democratic operative who works in politics for a living. It’s also shaped by early reactions from last night and anecdotal responses from conservatives and liberals (men and women) I was texting with throughout the debate.
Kamala Harris entered the stage with a much easier task than her opponent. Her team has a healthy lead nationally and in the swing states. As long as she introduced herself to the country, came across to a majority of voters that she’s qualified and ready to be president, landed some blows on Donald Trump, and defended attacks against Joe Biden, it would have been a good night for her. She didn’t need to “win” the debate as much as she needed to not “lose” it. Remember, these debates aren’t designed to change the minds of the other side, they’re targeted specifically at on-the-fence voters in six to eight states, of which there are few remaining. I think she cleared all of these hurdles pretty easily. I’ll go into more detail later about each candidate’s strong and weak moments. She certainly had both.
Mike Pence had a really tall order— damn near impossible. As the Trump-Pence ticket is down by nearly double digits nationwide and in every key swing state, he needed to reassure the conservative base that the wheels haven’t popped off the campaign and that they’re still in this thing. To that extent, I think he did. He’s a skilled political debater, trained to pivot off uncomfortable topics and discuss what he came there to say. And unlike his boss, he clearly reads his briefing books and practices. Most of his pivots were superb, a few times to his own detriment (I’ll cover those later). While many Trump supporters don’t believe the polls or media coverage, it’s important to note that the group doesn’t hit 40% of the electorate. Trump didn’t win in 2016 by just holding his base, he was able to narrowly win four swing states with nothing more than his base plus just enough of a coalition of suburban women and seniors in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Any loss of that “soft” support in the Trump coalition and he has a nearly impossible route to 270 in the electoral college. Pence had to thread the needle of pleasing the base while not turning off voters who are disappointed with Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his erratic personality.
Four years ago, that was made easier for several reasons:
(1) Hillary Clinton had a lot of baggage and there were enough squeamish Republicans who were uneasy with Trump but still disliked her more and were willing to “stay home” with the GOP and give him a chance. Hillary’s fav/unfav numbers were routinely -15 or worse and she fell victim to frequent comments from voters like, “I hate them both” or “they’re both terrible.” Trump couldn’t get himself to 50%, so he needed to pull Hillary down to his numbers in the states that mattered. And he did. Barely. Today, Joe Biden’s net favorability rating is +2. The Trump campaign hasn’t figured out how to vilify him outside of their own base. Persuadable Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in swing states who aren’t in love with Joe don’t seem to hate him or question his character the way they did with Hillary. Pence needed to change that last night— he didn’t.
(2) In 2016, Trump didn’t have a record. He was “the outsider” in a change election. He was well known for a television show and branding of his buildings and resorts. Today, he is the incumbent and has a record. America knows what a Trump Administration looks like. They either love it, hate it, or are just trying to determine if they should fire him and hire Biden. Pence needed to defend the biggest targets on his boss’ back and land major blows on his opponent’s. He didn’t come close to a knockout.
Also of note, the last issue the Trump campaign wants to be talking about the final 27 days of this campaign (while millions of people are already voting) is COVID-19. Why? Because by a two-to-one margin, the country is unhappy with his handling of the pandemic. They’d much prefer the national conversation to be about the economy or violence in our cities where Trump is running closer to Biden. Last night made that nearly impossible. After a week where the president, first lady, and 24 other senior Republicans were diagnosed with a virus many of them are tasked with protecting the rest of us from contracting, Trump’s support among women and seniors continued to erode in an almost unprecedented manner. Pence probably did more harm than good in discussing this problem.
While viewership for VP debates is typically lower than the main events, candidates also have to know that the first 30 minutes matter more than anything due to low attention spans of viewers. Kamala won the first 30 minutes landing blows on Trump for COVID-19 and his efforts to dismantle protections for millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions. Pence tried to deflect these attacks but the damage was done. As for his interruptions of Kamala and talking well beyond his allotted 2-minute slots, every woman I talked to last night said they know that feeling of a man interrupting them in meetings, talking over them, and “mansplaining” things to them. This won’t be a popular assessment with Trump voters, but that’s the problem. They can’t win this with a 20-30 point deficit among women. Perception is reality in politics. Again, Pence did more harm than good.
As the debate went on, Pence got better. He landed punches on the Supreme Court-packing question that Kamala dodged. He put the best face on Trump’s foreign policy record possible. He showed a substantive knowledge of the issues (even if you disagree with him). But again, he lost the first 30 minutes and doing better the last 60 was too little, too late. People change the channels and go to bed. Kamala came out strong, showed her prosecutorial chops and was deft in her ability to define herself, tell a story, connect the dots, and land blows to Team Trump on the key issue of the election: COVID-19.
Both candidates last night proved they are better debaters than their bosses. The interesting consistency between Trump and Pence is that they only focused on their last four years in office. They offered no new proposals for the next four. Voters look to the future and the incumbents are not making that case. Trump would have faced a brutal 50-50 re-elect even before COVID hit our shores, but now that it has and he can’t run on the economy, the task of keeping enough seniors and women in their ranks seems unlikely if not impossible. Even if last night was a draw, and I don’t think it was (I scored a narrow win for Kamala), Trump-Pence needed a game changing blow-out. They certainly didn’t get it.
That’s my read on the debate and I managed to get through it without mentioning the fly on Pence’s hair, or what appeared to be a nasty case of pinkeye. You’re welcome.
Rob Ellsworth is a partner and cofounder of The Majority Group in Washington, D.C. He served 5 members of Congress, in both political parties, as one of the youngest legislative directors and chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill. Ellsworth is a native Ohioan and graduate of Georgetown University.
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