How Much Can the VP Debate Help or Hurt Presidential Candidates?

In less than 12 hours, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will square off in the VP debate. While not nearly as important as the presidential debates, the VP debate can provide an opportunity to either carry momentum or change the tone.

When analyzing the last two presidential election cycles (2012, 2016); there are parallels between how the first presidential debate went and how the VP debate followed up. For example, many believed that President Obama lost the first debate to Mitt Romney. It wasn’t a trouncing by any stretch, but Romney was slightly more aggressive and came away with a spike in the polls. Then, just days later in the VP debate, Joe Biden thoroughly destroyed Paul Ryan. In this debate, Biden was the aggressor and Paul Ryan lacked energy. Polls had Biden winning the debate handily.

Fast forward to 2016 and many believed that Trump lost the first debate with Hillary Clinton. Trump’s brash strategy doesn’t always play on the debate stage and polls reflected that. This set the stage between the VP debate between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine. In that debate, Pence emerged victorious rather handily. It was a much more “conventional” political debate, but Pence was wittier and more aggressive than Kaine.

So over the last two presidential election cycles, the incumbent or favorite has won the first debate only to have their campaign end up on the losing side of the VP debate. While it is impossible to get an unbiased indicator for 2020, the general consensus is that the first Trump-Biden debate was a disaster. Lot’s of “nobody won” takes have been thrown around but if I’m being real, I’d consider it a loss for Trump. He was too aggressive in a time where voters were looking for stability. Of course “off the chain Trump” has been responsible for some of his best debate moments, it’s just that the last debate felt forced.

If history is to repeat, we could be in a situation where the VP debate could provide a bounce-back opportunity.

The stage is certainly set for this as well. Kamala Harris did not impress voters during the primary debates and is heavy on platitudes. On top of that, the left has spent the last four years building a caricature of Mike Pence that can easily be seen through. Pence is often portrayed as a religious zealot who wants to usher in a fundamentalist theocracy. In reality, Mike Pence is a fairly under the radar politician. He isn’t nearly as well known to voters as Trump, Biden or even Harris and the only mainstream reporting done on him goes with the zealot framing. It’s created a situation where Pence just simply needs to be composed in order to look like a winner. If he’s firm and counters platitudes from Harris with the administration’s record, Pence could win easily.

Kamala Harris is a manufactured politician. She is exactly the type to buy into the “everybody thinks Mike Pence is a religious nut” framing and walk into a trap. Her rhetoric could come off as canned and the attacks could be perceived negatively against a well mannered Pence. If this happens, and Pence does things such as hold her feet to the fire over the riots, it could be a significant victory.

So what could a resounding Pence victory mean for Trump? It’s tough to tell, but Trump could certainly use a boost right now. There are many who scoff at polls in general, but the reality is that trends are a worthwhile metric. They aren’t awful for Trump by any stretch, but it certainly feels as though things trended downward a bit following the first debate. A lot of this is simply natural, election cycle trends; but a momentum shift courtesy of the VP debate would certainly be welcome.

The stage is set for Mike Pence to have a solid night. Whether it holds up and more importantly, whether or not it will have significant impact on the general election race, remains to be seen.

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