The VP Debate: Does it Mean Anything? With Two Weeks Left, Does Anything?

Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence separated by plexi-glass on the debate stage

Vice presidential candidates never help a presidential candidate. Either they do pretty much nothing, or, in extreme cases, they can sink a bid. One thing is for sure: vice-presidential candidates never really do as much as the candidates who select them think they will. According to the Washington Post, fewer than 5% of Americans ever change a vote because of a vice-presidential candidate. In understanding the recent vice presidential debate – the question is not so much whether a fly can derail a sensible conversation – it is whether America’s mind is changeable with millions of votes cast.

The vice presidential debate was good for the Biden camp. Senator Harris took on Vice President Pence in a conversation that seemed much more reasonable than the first presidential debate. It even resulted in some good exchanges (of course, with that said, Pence often interrupted his female opponent and moderator, and neither candidate answered many questions). But honestly, nobody cares. This debate has already been overshadowed by dueling town halls from the candidates. The most pressing questions voters had going into the V.P. debate – what would happen if the ACA is eliminated? What would happen if a President Trump or President Biden were incapacitated in office? What will a COVID-19 response look like in the future? – were passed over by both sides.

A lot has changed in the last four years (300 new court appointees, billions of dollars of tax breaks to the rich, an extreme effort to deprive LGBTQ+ people of their rights, loosening of climate regulations to allow more destruction of natural resources and mining, etc.), but in some ways, it has been the same thing over and over and over again. According to the FiveThirtyEight Project poll tracker, President Trump has never held the support of most U.S. citizens (a sad feat none of his predecessors managed). His only plan for 2020 seems to replicate the fluke of 2016 that let him win with a deficit of almost 3 million in the popular vote. He relives that election every time he steps on stage for a rally, and nobody really pays attention anymore. But is there somehow a chance his plan is actually going to work?

2020 has been crazy beyond belief for most of us. We have been battered by an invisible COVID-19, had homes ravaged by natural disasters, and been left reeling by a series of high-profile deaths. And then there are the murder hornets and locusts and on and on. But if there is one thing we have learned, Donald Trump is not like “most people.” He does not pay taxes like a normal person, he does not know how to wait his turn like a normal person, and he does not tell the truth like a normal person. In some ways, then, Donald Trump’s 2020 has been utterly predictable. He has shown a flagrant disregard for scientific facts amid a pandemic, thrown political rallies for thousands of people sans masks, and refused to acknowledge thousands of daily deaths. The virus was not “under control” when he claimed so in March, April, May, June, July, or August, and it is not now. When a reporter asked him about the 200,000 American deaths from COVID-19, Trump turned the opposite direction and asked for another question. When he inevitably caught the virus, he claimed that his experience with the world’s best doctors and highly experimental drug cocktails means that everyone else will be okay. Trump has plowed through this year – through the past four years – as though nothing has ever changed. Despite how much you may object to what he has done and is doing, he is almost right.

As 2016 seemed to prove, polls do not tell the whole story. But in this case, there is a pretty clear message. Since Donald Trump took office, the FiveThirtyEight project shows he has dropped only from 45.5% to 43.8% approval. However, 96% of his original voters still support him, despite failing to handle the raging pandemic, address the systemic racism pervading our nation, and stop our GDP from plunging 33% in one quarter—in addition to being impeached. Anything Donald Trump does daily would be enough to sink most presidents (remember when he said, “we’ll have to see what happens,” regarding a peaceful transfer of power? That one passed pretty quickly for being one of the founding principles of this country…). It has been a long time since the days of Jimmy Carter, when a single speech about “malaise,” a term the then-President did not even use, could effectively guillotine a presidential bid. Thinking back to the V.P. Debate, Pence’s constant cutting in would have been a significant detractor in most prior elections. Still, it has been entirely overshadowed by the continually rotating news cycle of crazy scandals. 

In the last month, general election polls have stayed precisely in the same spot (they have been in the same place since July of 2019). According to Quinnipiac, 94% of voters have already decided who to vote for, and Democrats might consider that a good thing since they already have the lead, but it is not. Due to the electoral college system, not only can Trump win without taking the popular vote, he may not even need an outright electoral college win. Instead of individual representatives voting in the case of an electoral college tie that goes to the House of Representatives, state delegations vote. Though Republicans control fewer seats, they have a slim delegation lead. In other words, if there is a tie in the electoral college, which is possible due to swing states, and the election goes to the House of Representatives, we get round two of the Trump Presidency.

NBC News and Survey Monkey put the numbers at 50% to 45% in Hillary Clinton’s favor exactly this week four years ago. Current Survey Monkey polls have it at 53% to 45% in Joe Biden’s favor. Given how easily Mr. Trump abuses presidential powers, from his methods of extracting dirt on opponents, to undermining the intelligence and stature of his own CDC director for political gain, to forcing the weather service to redraw a hurricane map, it is not promising that he would be a responsible incumbent. Attacks on both the Post Office and voting-by-mail, allegations of Russian interference, and widespread voter suppression mean that these election results are shaky at best. We have already seen how in Fairfax, VA, voters had to wait upwards of 5 hours to cast their ballots while being harassed by Trump supporters. In other words, with two weeks left, Democrats and sensible Republicans have to be desperate to win. 

The V.P. Debate was supposed to be a chance for two of America’s potential Presidents to make their cases. However, what we got was a relatively bland night, which allowed a small insect to become the headline. As the last few weeks have shown, it is no longer up to the candidates; the people themselves have to make their voices heard. Anyone who can vote early and in-person safely should. Anyone who can donate money should. Anyone who can convince their uncles to turn off Fox for even half an hour and read about Donald Trump’s tax returns should. In 2016, Trump thought he could pull off the impossible and flip an election on its head. He was right. In 2020, he is betting he can do it again –  with the debates, Town Halls, and Trump’s catching of COVID-19 not seeming to have changed anything – Democrats have a lot at stake to prove him wrong.

Photo from Shutterstock.

By Theo Baker