The Vice Presidential Debate: What to Watch for Tonight

Dear Readers: In advance of tonight’s vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, we are pleased to feature a debate preview from our friend Joel Goldstein, one of the nation’s leading experts on the vice presidency. Joel looks back on the history of vice presidential debates and points out some of the things we may hear tonight.

Joel also will be joining us Thursday at 2 p.m. eastern for our latest episode of Sabato’s Crystal Ball: America Votes to analyze the debate and the state of the race. If you have questions you would like us to answer about the debate, specific races, or other developments in the campaign, just email us at

You can watch live at our YouTube channel (UVACFP), as well as at this direct YouTube link.

One other thing: In yesterday’s story about the political implications of statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, there was a mistake about the current voting status of Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. While neither the District nor Puerto Rico has voting representation in floor votes in Congress, the District casts three electoral votes for president, while Puerto Rico has no voting power in presidential general elections.

— The Editors


— The VP debate has been a regular feature of presidential elections for the last four decades.

— The age of the presidential candidates and the president’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis could mean a bigger spotlight for tonight’s VP debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris.

— This represents one of the few times in the campaign, outside of VP selection and acceptance addresses, when the VP candidates take center stage.

— VP debates can often end up being about the presidential nominees themselves.

The VP debate

Tonight’s vice presidential debate will be the 11th such event in American history, but the first in which the running mates will debate in the shadow of a serious presidential illness.

Although some speculated that Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris might receive more attention than have their predecessors given the ages of the two major presidential candidates (Donald Trump is 74 and Joe Biden is 77), the recent news that Trump tested positive for coronavirus and was taken to Walter Reed hospital has triggered renewed attention on presidential inability and succession.

Significantly, the most dramatic growth of the vice presidency has occurred in the years since 1976 when Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale began planning Mondale’s role, a period that has been the second-longest period in American history in which the nation has not experienced an intra-term presidential succession. Yet the enhanced focus on the vice president’s “one heartbeat away” status amidst the news that Trump has contracted a potentially deadly disease shines a brighter spotlight on the vice presidential candidates as they prepare to take campaign center stage at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. In addition to raising interest in the vice presidential debate, this unique context may also somewhat alter some normal principles that govern such events.

This short piece will provide a brief overview of the vice presidential debate and its significance as a political institution before suggesting how this year’s debate may be a little different, in part due to Trump’s illness.

How vice presidential debates differ

Although the vice presidential debates have been part of the presidential debate series since 1976 (except in 1980), they differ from the presidential debates in material ways.

Whereas presidential candidates have debated two (1984, 1988, 1996) or three times during those 11 campaigns (i.e. not including 1980, when there was one debate between Republican Ronald Reagan and Independent John Anderson and one between Reagan and Carter), there has never been more than one vice presidential debate. Not surprisingly, the vice presidential debate has always been an intermediate debate, the third of four total debates in 1976 and the second of three or usually four debates every other year.

The vice presidential debates have always been the least-watched debate of that election cycle except in 2008, when the presence of Gov. Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate made it the most-watched event. Whereas at least one, and often both, major party presidential candidates have engaged in debates during the primary season — depending on whether an incumbent president seeks reelection or not — the vice presidential candidates have not had that experience that year except in the unusual occasions where a running mate unsuccessfully sought that year’s presidential nomination, such as in 2004 (John Edwards), 2008 (Biden), and 2020 (Harris). Whereas presidential candidates are generally the focus of campaign attention, the vice presidential debate offers a rare post-convention moment when the vice presidential candidates take center stage. And yet even though the vice presidential candidates are on the stage, the evening’s discussion is likely to focus primarily on the national candidates who have the night off, the presidential candidates.

Vice presidential debates place the running mates center stage

Typically, the vice presidential debate is the third in a trilogy of major campaign moments for a first-time vice presidential candidate and the second of two such moments for an incumbent seeking reelection. The other events are, of course, the rollout for a new vice presidential candidate and the acceptance speech. Of the three (or two) moments, the vice presidential debate presents the one moment when the candidate must respond and interact.

Whatever one’s assessment of the value of presidential debates generally, vice presidential debates make a distinctive contribution to American governance through their impact on the vice presidency. The existence of a vice presidential debate tends to promote the quality of vice presidential candidates. Presidential nominees select a running mate with the knowledge that he or she will be the focus of campaign discussion during their 90-minute debate and the day or so before and after. No candidate wants to relive the angst that gripped McCain and his top aides as they awaited Palin’s moment in the campaign spotlight at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 2, 2008 as she took questions from moderator Gwen Ifill in her square off against Biden. The inevitability of a vice presidential debate provides further reason to select a running mate who is familiar with issues, thinks clearly and quickly, and communicates in a manner likely to appeal to reachable voters.

The vice presidential debate also assumes importance because it presents a unique opportunity for citizens to see the vice presidential candidates perform for a prolonged time under pressure and opposite both an opponent and prominent journalist (or more, depending on the format) with incentive, in one case, to make him or her look bad and, in the other, to press him/her on an issue. As such, the debate communicates information about a vice presidential candidate that allows citizens opportunities to assess the two tickets.

The occasion is especially important for first-time vice presidential candidates who in many instances are little known to the public. Of the 22 major party candidates in the 11 vice presidential debates, 16 were first-time candidates, whereas only six — George H.W. Bush, 1984; Dan Quayle, 1992; Al Gore, 1996; Dick Cheney, 2004; Joe Biden, 2012; Mike Pence, 2020 — were incumbents. Newcomers to the national stage wish to make a good impression, and incumbents are generally positioning themselves for a presidential run four years later.

About a week before the Oct. 15, 1976 debate, pollster Louis Harris found that 45% of voters felt unfamiliar with Mondale and 50% felt that way about Bob Dole, Gerald Ford’s running mate that year. Prior to the vice presidential debate on Oct. 5, 1988, between 40% and 55% had no opinion of Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle. In late September 2016, more than 30% said they were not sure who the Democratic or Republican vice presidential candidate was and more than 40% could not name Pence or Tim Kaine.

Not only may the vice presidential debate affect a running mate’s name recognition, but it also may affect her or his favorability rating. In 2008, Pew found that the debate improved both Biden and Palin’s net favorability, although Biden’s improved by more (and the poll also indicated that voters switched their opinions of the candidates in both positive and negative directions from before the debate to after it).

To be sure, vice presidential debates rarely swing a presidential election. Yet even if they may not move the needle much, they may move it some, and sometimes small moves may make a difference. A Gallup study in 2012 that concluded that the vice presidential debates have minimal impact on voters still found a net 4% shift towards the Republican ticket after the 1992 vice presidential debate and a 5% shift to Bush-Cheney after the 2000 debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman. Those may seem like small shifts, but in a close election, as 2000 was, changes of that magnitude, if they endure, can be decisive, especially if felt in battleground states. Cheney was widely perceived to have won the 2000 encounter, and it is certainly plausible that his performance helped convince some voters that Bush would be surrounded by experienced and thoughtful advisers. During the 1976 vice presidential debate, Bob Dole associated the Democratic Party with war by saying that the 20th century’s wars had started during Democratic administrations. A well-prepared Mondale forcefully rebuked Dole for the comment and its suggestion that World War II and Korea were partisan adventures. Following the debate, Carter increasingly referred to Mondale in speeches and argued that his choice of Mondale confirmed his ability as a decision-maker. Mondale appears to have helped Carter carry decisive states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Even if the vice presidential debate doesn’t dramatically change the overall race, it may affect some voters. It’s important to recall the somewhat obvious but often overlooked point that shifts in voter attitude often may occur in both directions. The partially offsetting impacts mean that the overall change, even if small, masks larger numbers of voters whose attitudes are influenced by the opportunity to see the vice presidential candidates in action.

Vice presidential debates usually focus on presidential candidates

Generally speaking, vice presidential debates are not about the candidates on the stage. They are instead about the presidential candidates. Kaine recognized four years ago a normal rule of vice presidential debates: If he found himself talking too much about Pence or himself, he was probably missing an opportunity to use his time more effectively. Of course, vice presidential candidates want to present themselves as plausible presidents and vice presidents, at least in the eyes of reachable voters. But normally, most of the discussion focuses on the two presidential candidates and the themes of their campaign. Vice presidential candidates use the debate to defend the standard-bearer on their ticket and attack his or her opponent.

Although the most-remembered and repeated moment in vice presidential and perhaps presidential debate history is Bentsen’s “You are no John Kennedy” takedown of Quayle, what is often overlooked is that Quayle did an effective job attacking the rival presidential candidates in both the 1988 and 1992 vice presidential debates. He relentlessly disparaged Michael Dukakis as a big-spending “liberal” in the days when conservatives advocated fiscal responsibility and Bill Clinton as untrustworthy. By contrast, Jack Kemp in 1996 and Lieberman four years later were criticized by some co-partisans for their unwillingness to attack sufficiently the competing presidential candidates.

The 2020 VP debate

The unique circumstances of this year’s vice presidential debate may focus an unusual amount of discussion on the two vice presidential candidates. The event will provide an important part of Harris’s introduction to the American people because she is a first-time candidate. Although some polls since her selection suggested that she enjoys higher name recognition than some of her predecessors, she is less well-known than Pence. Trump’s insistence on dominating the Republican stage and the campaign accommodations the Democratic ticket has made in view of the pandemic have probably given the two vice presidential candidates less than normal campaign visibility.

Yet the most powerful factors that may produce more discussion of Pence and Harris, their records and beliefs, relate to other considerations. Trump’s illness gives the Democrats more reason to focus on Pence because it has heightened awareness of Trump’s mortality and, accordingly, the possibility of presidential succession. That focuses attention on Pence and on the question whether he has leadership qualities sought in a president. Moreover, Pence has chaired the administration’s coronavirus task force and may expect those who believe the United States government has done a poor job responding to the pandemic to hold him responsible in part for that failure. Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis and those of other administration and campaign personnel and Republican senators followed events at which they ignored CDC recommendations regarding precautions to protect their own health and the health of other Americans. This circumstance is likely to subject Pence to scrutiny and criticism regarding that issue. And his involvement in other Trump policies suggests that Harris may be able to attack Trump’s record through Pence.

Although presidential candidates do not typically focus on the competing vice presidential candidate, Trump has disparaged Harris to an unusual extent and in ways that some journalists and pundits have suggested are racist and sexist. He has attacked her competence, mocked her name, and argued that she is too liberal. Some have suggested that Trump’s reliance on these attacks on Harris reflect, in part, an inability to score effective attacks on Biden. Pence’s style is not to engage in the offensive rhetoric that Trump uses but some of these themes, having been aired by the standard-bearer, may arise in the vice presidential debate.

Finally, the upcoming Senate proceedings on Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court will raise a number of issues that may come up in the debate, especially given Harris’s service on the Senate Judiciary Committee and Pence’s support for the nomination. These include the possible impact of Barrett’s service on the court on health insurance coverage for individuals with preexisting conditions, the status of decisions recognizing a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate to address climate change, and the ability of governing units to regulate gun possession and use, among other issues.

Joel K. Goldstein is the author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (2016) and other works on the American vice presidency.