GSPM Panel Analyzes the Vice-Presidential Debate

A former member of Congress, a political strategist and students shared their key takeaways from the debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris.

VP DEBATE PANEL
From left: Loretta Sanchez, Jacob Call, Martine Wolfe, Michele Manatt and Lara Brown analyzed the vice-presidential debate.
October 09, 2020

By Tatyana Hopkins

Although the vice-presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence (R) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was a welcomed departure from the chaos of the 2020 election cycle's first presidential debate, it probably did not move the needle for most undecided voters, according to a panel at George Washington University that analyzed the vice-presidential matchup.

“One of the things that’s fascinating in the world of political science is that we know that debates rarely influence the outcome,” said Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management. “It is the post-debate commentary that basically declares the winner, [and] that ends up influencing those who are undecided.”

However, she said there has been no clear winner in the coverage of the 90-minute debate, which took place Wednesday evening at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.  

Dr. Brown moderated a virtual discussion Thursday evening analyzing the election season’s first and only vice-presidential debate as part of GSPM’s Frank J. Fahrenkopf & Charles T. Manatt 2020 Election Series, which aims to facilitate respectful political discourse.

The panel included Michele Manatt, political strategist, commentator and daughter of Charles T. Manatt; former U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.); as well as two students at the University of California, Berkeley, Martine Wolfe and Jacob Call.

When asked whether a winner had emerged from the vice-presidential standoff, they called a draw.

“I don’t think the media did Pence or Harris any favors,” Mr. Call said. “I think that it was just kind of like the vice-presidential debate happened, there was a fly and here are some highlights.”

The panel agreed that the chaos from the first presidential debate—marked with incessant interruptions and personal attacks from President Donald Trump—cast a dark shadow over the seemingly normal vice-presidential debate.

“In some ways, Trump’s antics have spoiled a regular debate,” Ms. Sanchez said. “We really have to get to the point where [candidates] are really debating, and they’re debating on the substance. I didn’t see that last night, and I didn’t see that in the first presidential debate.”

However, the panel said while it likely did not change how people planned to vote, it likely did help improve the candidates’ favorability.

Ms. Sanchez said Mr. Pence had the hardest job during the debate.

“Trump has just made a disaster for him, and so Mike was really interesting because he was able to answer the questions and get out his talking points, and that’s what you’re supposed to do in a debate,” she said. “Kamala had the easier job. All she had to do was say Trump was bad…and most people would have believed her.”

The debate covered topics ranging from coronavirus, the economy, race, police reform and foreign policy and featured lots of disagreement as well as evasive answers from both candidates.

The panel noted that while Mr. Pence was able to smoothly navigate his talking points, Ms. Harris’ nonverbal cues gave her a performance edge. On the issues, they said both candidates avoided directly answering questions and spent too much time on seemingly “irrelevant” topics such as foreign policy over issues that may be more interesting to voters such as climate change.  

However, the panel disagreed about Mr. Pence’s interrupting Ms. Harris. Some thought it was part of normal debate strategy to reduce an opponent’s speaking time, while others found his cutting off the first Black and South Asian woman to participate in a general election debate to be patronizing.

“I think the debate commission and the moderator really lost an opportunity to flex its muscles,” Ms. Manatt said. “It was clear the he was doing it over and over again. Maybe, we may not be in agreement on the terminology, maybe mansplaining is the right term…[but] he trampled over her time. For most women who were paying attention and had the energy and the focus to watch the whole thing or even a good part of it, it was hard not to see that he was very disrespectful towards her.”

Overall, the panel reiterated that importance of political participation.

“People who show up are the people who decide,” Dr. Brown said. “So, it’s worth showing up.”

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