The VP Debate: What We Saw

Amanda Hunter | Oct 8, 2020

In last night’s historic Vice Presidential debate, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris faced off in a much-anticipated event in Salt Lake City. Moderated by Susan Page, Vice President Pence and Senator Harris each advocated for their ticket’s economic plans, crisis management, and efforts to ensure a strong future for the American people.

As the first-ever woman of color on a major party presidential ticket, Harris has no roadmap for her candidacy—and we saw her bring her authentic style and personality to the stage. Here’s more about what we observed:

Handling a crisis took center stage

From the very first question through to the end of the debate, management of the Covid-19 pandemic was a major topic for both candidates. We know from our BLFF research that the ability to handle a crisis is a top trait for assessing a woman’s electability—and that voters value a leader who is in touch with their lives and who prioritizes communication (including listening to experts). Senator Harris brought up her and Vice President Biden’s plan for the COVID crisis. Our research shows that voters want leaders with a plan, not just for the current moment, but for what is coming around the corner. In fact, “plan” was the word we heard most in focus groups. She emphasized listening to experts on more than one occasion—another trait voters want to see in a crisis—in reference to the safety of any forthcoming vaccine, and regarding the importance of scientists’ opinions on our concurrent crisis of climate change.

Senator Harris’s authenticity was on display

Early in the debate, moderate Susan Page referred to Senator Harris as “Kamala,” then corrected herself by saying “Senator Harris,” to which Harris quickly responded, “I’m Kamala,” emphasizing her humility and authenticity. From there, Harris continued to show who she is throughout the night—mentioning her mother at least once, and referring to one of her stepchildren with Doug Emhoff while discussing the job market for young people. She also notably showed what looked to be genuine real-time reactions to Mike Pence’s statements with facial expressions. Our research shows the importance of authenticity and how well it can resonate with voters.

Standing up for herself and her qualifications

More than once, Kamala Harris pushed back against Mike Pence’s interruptions by saying “I’m speaking” directly to him before finishing her point. Harris also emphasized that she planned to be able to finish her thoughts during her time allotted, at one point saying, “I will not sit here and be lectured.” Our research shows that a woman candidate standing up for herself and others in a debate conveys strength and expertise to voters.

We also saw Harris emphasize her qualifications—particularly regarding her prosecutorial record and how it relates to her ability to handle policing in the country. Highlighting qualifications is always necessary for women candidates, who must do more to prove they’re up for an executive leadership role than men (who are often assumed to be qualified).

What this could mean for the race

Last night’s meeting between Pence and Harris was decidedly more orderly than the first presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Voters were able to see more policy contrasts and differences between the two parties’ visions for our country’s future. The debate, arguably the highest-profile moment of the Senator’s career, was a showcase of the gender dynamics and the tightrope Kamala Harris has to walk in order to navigate gender-based and racial stereotypes and double standards. As a public servant who has spent the better part of two decades navigating these challenges, Senator Harris showed she is well-equipped to rise to the occasion.

We’re eager to further unpack what we saw on stage as the election moves ahead and Kamala Harris continues her historic path.

For more analysis of the debate, join the Women & Politics Institute’s analysis webinar tonight at 6 pm with Candy Crowley, Karen Finney, and Kasie Hunt, hosted by Betsy Fischer Martin. Register here.

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