The vice presidential debate in Utah: What you need to know about the big event

(Patrick Semansky | AP) Staff members with the Commission on Presidential Debates measure out the distance between spectators' chairs as preparations take place for the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Salt Lake City. The vice presidential debate is scheduled to take place Wednesday, Oct. 7.

The lights will come and the nation’s attention will turn to Salt Lake City as Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris meet for the first and only time on the debate stage.

The vice presidential debate is usually a snoozefest, but Wednesday’s event is taking place during a global pandemic, an economic downturn and a political season that feels like a soap opera. Republicans are rushing to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court before Election Day. President Donald Trump got the coronavirus, is hospitalized and treated with experimental medicines and then declares himself healthier than he has been in 20 years.

Suddenly, humdrum becomes must-see TV.

Here’s a quick primer on what you can expect when you tune in.

How will the debate work?

The debate begins at 7 p.m. and will be moderated by Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today.

If you’re expecting a repeat of last week’s interruption-filled presidential debate, you’ll probably be disappointed. Both Pence and Harris are seasoned veterans of rhetorical wrestling. Harris honed her skills as a prosecutor in California while Pence hosted a conservative talk radio show in Indiana.

The debate will be divided into nine segments of 10 minutes each. Page has not given a hint as to what questions she’ll ask during the 90-minute event, and moderators are given complete discretion.

The vice presidential candidates did not debate between 1960 and 1980, save for 1976, when Republican Bob Dole faced Democrat Walter Mondale in Houston. That year, the veep debate was the last of four. It once again ended the debate season in 1984. The vice presidential debate took its current slot, as the second debate, in 1988, and has remained there ever since.

Harris has been in Utah since Saturday preparing while Pence arrived Monday evening.

Because of the coronavirus outbreak, Pence and Harris will be seated 12 feet apart and separated by Plexiglas. Want to watch it? It will be on all the major TV channels and you can stream it at sltrib.com.

Why hold this in Utah?

This is just the third time since the modern presidential debates began in 1960 that an event has been held in the Intermountain West. The presidential candidates met at the University of Denver in 2012 and at the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 2016. Salt Lake City was primed to host a Republican primary debate in 2016, but it was near the end of the schedule and Trump, then the clear front-runner, declined to participate. At that time, the University of Utah sought one of the 2020 debates and here we are.

“This area of the country has become much more important politically,” says Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. “I think it’s absolutely critical that at least one of these debates happens here in the West, and Utah is the perfect place for it.”

The event should be a public relations boon for the U. Network correspondents have converged on campus with numerous live TV shots from inside and outside Kingsbury Hall, the venue for Wednesday’s debate. Much like the 2002 Olympics, it’s a prime opportunity for Utah to put its best foot forward on a national stage.

How big of a deal is this?

The first presidential debate is considered to be the “Super Bowl” of politics, but the vice presidential matchup is usually more underwhelming. For example, 84 million Americans watched the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, but just 36 million tuned in for the vice presidential undercard the following week between Pence and Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine.

Maybe not this year.

After Trump’s erratic debate performance last week and his diagnosis and subsequent hospitalization from COVID-19, the nation’s attention may well be locked on the University of Utah.

“The Commission on Presidential Debates have told us this could be the most-watched vice presidential debate of all time,” says Perry. “A lot of people who watched the first debate did not feel they understood any better the policies or positions of the candidates. They’re looking for that to come out in this next debate.”

The most-watched veep debate in history was held in 2008 between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin when 69.9 million people tuned in. Last week, about 73 million people watched Trump and Biden square off. They’ll need similar numbers Wednesday to surpass the 2008 record.

What is the strategy for each candidate?

The stakes have been raised significantly for the Trump campaign. A passel of new polls released in the past few days shows Biden widening his lead over Trump nationally and in several key swing states.

With Trump recently sidelined, it’s up to Pence to try to stop the bleeding.

“This campaign is now about the last thing they want it to be about, which is COVID,” says Reed Galen, a political strategist who worked for President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain. He also co-founded the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.

The virus has reemerged as a top issue, especially as the White House has become a hot spot for coronavirus infections among key staff, aides and even the first lady. Reed says he expects Harris to aggressively prosecute the case that the Trump administration has mishandled the pandemic.

“If I were her, I would take it from the prosecutor’s perspective," he says. “The defense here is very, very weak. The facts are on her side.”

He believes Pence will try to move the debate to more familiar ground for him.

“Pence is going to make this about values and socialism and the Supreme Court," he says. “When they run out of things to talk about, they go back to tax cuts, judges, the Second Amendment, things that are a play to their base.”

How is this debate different because of the coronavirus?

Viewers will probably notice that the setup for the candidates will be different. Originally, Harris and Pence were going to be seated 7 feet apart. That distance was increased to 12 feet after Trump’s positive coronavirus diagnosis. On Monday, debate organizers agreed to a request from the Biden campaign to add Plexiglas barriers between the candidates and the moderator.

Expect a more stringent mask-wearing policy, too. At last week’s debate in Cleveland, several people from Trump’s entourage did not wear masks as they sat in the audience and even rebuffed requests from organizers to put them on.

“We are going to adhere to the mask rules a little bit better than they did in Cleveland,” Perry says.

The small audience in the debate hall, made up of media members, guests and U. students, will be spread out to maintain social distancing.

Behind the scenes, the usual post-debate “spin alley,” where campaign representatives explain to reporters why their candidate won, has been abandoned.

Will this matter?

Donald Trump is 74. Joe Biden is 77. With their advanced age, it increases the odds that the vice president may need to step in during the next term. (Pence is 61, and Harris turns 56 on Oct. 20.) That alone may amp the interest in Wednesday’s event.

But will the debate move the needle? That’s a big lift, according to Reed.

“They’re really demonstrating their own fitness for office in some ways," he says, “but ultimately, people don’t vote for vice president, they cast a ballot for president.”

When it comes down to it, there aren’t that many persuadable voters remaining. A Y2 Analytics poll in Utah found Trump leading Biden by 10 points ahead of Election Day, 50% to 40%. Just 4% of Trump voters and 2% of Biden voters say they could change their minds. Nationally, a CNN poll released Tuesday found most voters have already decided whom they’re going to vote for in November, and fewer than 1 in 10 likely voters say they could change their mind before Election Day.