Vice-Presidential Debate Preview: Pence facing an unenviable task

US Vice President Mike Pence
Mike Pence's defences of Donald Trump will be in the spotlight

The next big election event is scheduled for the early hours of Thursday as Mike Pence and Kamala Harris square up in Utah. Paul Krishnamurty previews...

"It feels like Pence is a lamb to the slaughter, tasked with defending the indefensible without having Trump’s bravado to emerge unscathed."

It feels much longer than a week since the first presidential debate. So much has happened and so much remains uncertain. Donald Trump is out of hospital and claiming no symptoms but we can only speculate about his condition moving forward.

Biden hits his lowest odds yet

His poll numbers since that debate have worsened and Betfair punters are finally coming around to that line of thinking. Going into that debate, Biden was a 4/51.79 chance, equivalent to a 56% chance. Tonight, he hit his lowest odds yet at 1/21.51 (67%).

Negative Covid tests permitting, the Vice Presidential Debate is scheduled to take place from 0200 BST. As I write, the Pence team is objecting to a plexiglass barrier to separate the candidates. Words fail me. Let us assume this is a tactic and the debate will go ahead.

VP debates rarely move the needle

Vice presidential debates are not usually memorable or significant. I rated Pence the marginal winner against Tim Kaine in 2016 but the event barely cut through at all, amid the Trump v Clinton noise. In today's unique circumstances, this one may well do so.

There has never been a vice presidential debate amid serious speculation that one of the candidates could be elevated to President within minutes. Voters will surely want to take a closer look at Pence. Many won't have done in any depth before. Like all around Trump, he fades into the background.

Pence Covid answers under the spotlight

In no previous scenario to my knowledge has an incumbent VP been guaranteed to face such a direct, tough perhaps critical grilling on the key issue of the day. Pence will be hit with all the questions the media have been trying and failing to get consistent answers to regarding Trump's diagnosis and condition.

The VP is tasked with explaining and somehow defending Trump and his team's actions in endangering the lives of others including their colleagues and staff. Justifying Trump's avalanche of Covid disinformation dating back months and Pence's own culpability from his White House role.

Opinion sharply against government on Covid

Good luck with that. Harris was a prosecutor and can be lethal in Senate hearings. She will have him on the backfoot and know how to extract humiliating answers. Her attacks will reinforce clear, majority opinion. According to the latest CNN poll, 66% say Trump handled his Covid symptoms irresponsibly and 68% distrust the government's information.

These exchanges will probably produce the main takeaways. Covid and the spate of infections among White House staff and Republicans are the only story in town.

It feels like Pence is a lamb to the slaughter, tasked with defending the indefensible without having Trump's bravado to emerge unscathed. However one never knows how these events will play out. Were he to handle the situation well, people might start to say he looks presidential.

Harris bound to emphasise competence

This is a big night for Harris. Introducing herself and demonstrating her own political identity to a much wider audience. She didn't fare notably well in debates when flopping during the primaries. Plus it may be less the quality of her answers that matter than her tone.

I was sceptical when Biden picked Harris, fearing she might be a lightning rod for Trump media. A wealthy, well-connected black, female, liberal politician from California is just the type of profile they relish targeting. As opposed to Biden - a white working class man from Pennsylvania - against whom their smears haven't landed.

To be fair, Harris hasn't put a foot wrong so far and I expect her to arrive well-prepared and able to deliver the key messages. Right now, the Biden campaign need to emphasise competence above all else. A stable team with plans, rather than chaos.

Policy differences to be better illuminated

Tonight may be the first time many viewers heard any real policy discussion in this campaign. The first debate was just noise and I'd imagine most tuned out of the specific details. This offers opportunity for both sides.

Republicans urgently need a boost to hold the Senate. They are tied to Trump and his negatives, either unwilling or unable to emerge from his shadow.

Pence may not have the president's charisma but his Conservative credentials are out front. These will be on full display during the Supreme Court exchanges and might have a real effect on his party's withering base.

Strong performance could make Pence

Amid the weekend drama, Yougov published some interesting hypothetical head-to-head numbers. Harris only led Pence by 3%, with the Republican on 45%. The same poll had Biden leading Trump by 8%, compared to 7% versus Pence.

As in 2016, when Trump underscored his party's nationwide House vote by 3%, it seems he is a lag on Republicans. The entrenched Democrat lead in the generic ballot looks more of a statement on Trump - the all-encompassing question - than on the partisan divide. Under a different Republican president, I doubt there would have been a mid-term 'Blue Wave' and record turnout.

Therefore a strong Pence performance could firm up some internal sceptics and boost those Senate defences. A very strong performance might even get Republicans making favourable comparisons against Trump. That could really matter in the weeks ahead.

Harris to amplify winning issues

That isn't a particularly likely outcome, though. As argued previously, Trump's extreme position and tactics have put his party in a terrible position. Pence has little material to work with beyond the campaign lines that are evidently alienating a majority. Harris has issues on her side, and not just Covid.

She will doubtless emphasise that the government are trying to remove healthcare from people with pre-existing conditions, during a pandemic. No issue plays better for Democrats than healthcare. Biden raised it but it was drowned out.

Pence will doubtless also come under great pressure to make commitments to which Trump previously failed. Condemn white supremacists. Commit to accepting the election result and a peaceful transition of power.

I don't doubt he will, to the great relief of many GOP-leaners, disavow white supremacists but can he convincingly defend Trump's failure to do so? Only 3% of the first debate audience were estimated open to persuasion. It will be lower among this audience.


Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

2020 US Presidential Election: USA - Presidential Election 2020 (Next President)

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