The only vice presidential debate of the 2020 presidential campaign took place on Oct. 8 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The 90-minute session was moderated by USA Today’s Susan Page and consisted of nine, 10-minute segments discussing a range of topics including COVID-19, the economy, the Supreme Court, foreign policy, healthcare, climate change, racism and policing.
Upwards of 58 million Americans watched the debate, which maintained a rather calm tone throughout, especially when compared to the first presidential debate’s chaotic and abrasive nature. Despite this, neither candidate focused much on the questions being posed to them, preferring to either discuss the presidential candidates, each other or (at best) the issues being discussed more broadly than Page asked. This led to what many have characterized as a boring debate, a slice of normalcy in a year that refuses to fit any expectations. In fact, many found the only memorable thing about the debate was a fly that landed on Pence’s head for several minutes.
In The Evanstonian’s efforts to cover these debates, we will be following the voices of several students as Nov. 3 approaches. Following are excerpts from interviews with five students—seniors Gabe Karsh, Levi Rosing, Lara-Nour Walton and Jonathan Zenkich, and junior Mira Littmann—regarding their thoughts on the vice presidential debate. While none of these students are able to vote, their perspectives still offer insight into what ETHS students think of the election.
What were your initial reactions to the vice presidential debate?
Karsh: “I thought it was much better [than the first debate]. It was way more boring than the first one, but better it be boring than a chaotic mess.”
Rosing: “I loved it, but it was really boring also. Last week’s debate was so chaotic, but it was boring. This was boring. They were all really calm. Mike Pence was really boring, and I feel he just took Kamala down with him. I think they both did well though.”
Littmann: “A lot of Pence’s statements startled me and made me feel really scared, especially because I think he’s able to get a point across much better than Trump can. However, it was really frustrating for me to watch because both candidates kept avoiding questions and I don’t think that’s what a debate is supposed to be—I would have liked to hear their answers”
Walton: “Obviously this debate was less of a dumpster fire than the last.”
Zenkich: “My initial reactions were much better than they were than the first presidential debate. I thought it was more tolerable, understandable, substantive.”
How did this debate compare to the first one?
Karsh: “I think both of them lied, like last week, but that Pence was much better at lying than the other candidates including the president, and that this was much more civil and organized. Pence also got away with taking up a lot of time, the same as Trump.”
* Editor’s note: Pence spoke for a total of 36:27 and Harris for 36:24.
Rosing: “It was more civil, it was easier to watch, but last week’s debate was more exciting, even though it was awful to watch. It’s like a guilty pleasure, you want the debate to be crazy…. You can’t not watch Trump, even if you hate him.”
Littmann: “I thought it was much more civil than the presidential debate, but then again the bar wasn’t set very high. I think both candidates actually managed to get through more of their policy ideas, which can be a good or bad thing depending on who you look at.”
Walton: “The amount of misinformation being spewed out by Pence was almost more alarming than when Trump waxed rhapsodic about his “achievements” as president. When he said that the air and water were cleaner than ever recorded, his delivery was smug, almost convincing. Pence is dangerous because he has the composure and poise that Trump lacks. He could be persuasive for undecided voters.”
Zenkich: “Pence is a much more textbook politician. Harris is a bit sharper than Biden is. They didn’t really develop the habit of talking over each other in the beginning. The moderator was okay, but seems to have done better in this debate, just because she wasn’t dealing with Trump [like Chris Wallace was].”
What did you think about the candidates’ performances?
Karsh: “I thought that Kamala would have done better…. I expected her to push him a lot more than she did. People thought she was going to sweep the floor with him, which absolutely didn’t happen… Both of them were competent. However, Pence didn’t answer a single question for the entire debate, and it didn’t matter. He answered the questions he wished he were asked.”
Littmann: “I think both candidates did a good job of playing to their audiences. For example, Harris’s quick comebacks were a really big hit with her younger liberal audience and I saw a lot of Instagram posts praising her for that the next day. On the other hand, as much as I disagreed with him, I think Pence was really coherent and conveyed a lot of ideals that his audience will enjoy and praise him for.”
Rosing: “I thought Kamala would do better because she did so well in the primary debates. I thought she’d be super on the attack and aggressive, and she did that, but it was really calm compared to others. Pence, I was expecting what he did.”
Walton: “Harris was on her game. She ended having to spend chunks of her allotted time fact-checking Pence, which was not preferable, but when she had the liberty to speak, she stared at the viewers back home, never missing a chance to make searing indictments of the Trump administration. She really attacked the way COVID is being handled, which is exactly where she needed to focus. Compared to Pence, her arguments were a little more watertight. For example, Pence brought up H1N1 as proof that Biden wouldn’t be able to handle COVID, but that seemed a little out of touch with the current situation, and I don’t think it landed.”
Zenkich: “I think that Pence won slightly. I think that his answers were a bit more substantive than hers, that the points he had against her were stronger than what she had against him. He made the best out of a bad situation having to defend the president.”
What did the candidates do that shocked you? What should have been done differently?
Karsh: “I suspect that some of the advice Kamala got, and this might be totally wrong, is that you should be less aggressive. Just give your vision of the world, answer the questions and respond to what they say, but don’t be super pushy since that doesn’t come across well in non-white, male demographics…. I also don’t know what the reasoning is, but I think Biden and Harris just won’t bring up Merrick Garland. Pence pushed Harris on court-packing, and she’d never answered.”
Littmann: “I think a big takeaway that I actually heard people talking about was the fly that landed on Pence’s head during his speech. Although I do love laughing at the memes about this, I wish people would have listened to Pence’s actual words. While everyone was focused on the fly, Pence was talking about how systemic racism is not a problem in our country. I walked away from the debate feeling frustrated and angry that we’re still struggling with this problem…. that our country is in control of someone who doesn’t respect the rights of all people.”
Rosing: “Pence also really got her. Like when he asked her if she supports court-packing, she kind of like trailed off because it’s really, really controversial in the Democratic Party right now, and you don’t really want to say you do, but at the same time, you want to…. I think she kind of stayed away because it’s deliberately playing with fire.”
Walton: “Probably the most shocking moment to me was when Pence refused to acknowledge that our justice system was systemically racist…. [Overall,] both candidates were pretty evasive, but that’s nothing new in politics.”
Zenkich: “Pence completely shifted the window on COVID. He made it about the sacrifices Americans had already made, by doing that made Harris look like the villain. He knew what Kamala was going to say; she seems to have a reputation in the Democratic Party as a strong debater, but she really fumbled.”
Have your thoughts on the candidates changed?
Karsh: “I don’t think that like this has changed my mind in the slightest, but I do think that what Trump and Pence keep saying about how Biden is a Trojan horse for the radical left people, is more true than before, which I think is a good thing…. I have a lot more respect for Pence as an intellectual after this debate, but I still think he’s an evil, evil man.”
Littmann: “I wasn’t entirely surprised by Pence’s opinions, but they still scared me. I think the thing that really stood out to me the most was how he said that systemic racism doesn’t exist, and also that climate change should not be a priority. It didn’t really change my opinions about him, but mostly just reinforced in my mind how dangerous he is to the people of America.”
Rosing: “[Not really.] If I had to choose a Republican and it had to be Trump or Pence, I’d choose Pence…. And Kamala over Joe Biden.”