When Susan Page, the moderator of Wednesday’s vice presidential debate, welcomed viewers to the campus of the University of Utah, many Utahns probably felt a thrill as the nation’s attention turned to the Beehive State. After all, it’s not often that Utah is anything but an afterthought during a presidential election.
But, when the sun rises over the Wasatch on Thursday, will there be any lasting impact from the long-awaited face-off between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris?
Most of the time the easy answer is “no.” Or in this case, it might involve more calls to be able to mute a candidate who talks too long or interrupts.
Vice presidential debates are usually unremarkable. They’re more often remembered for a good zinger rather than changing the course of the race. If that holds, then it’s more than likely that this debate will be remembered for the coronavirus pandemic taking center stage, literally, with two giant plexiglass walls separating the candidates. Or maybe that distracting fly that landed in Pence’s hair.
But as veteran Republican campaign consultant Mark McKinnon said, “This debate could be much more important than what we’re used to seeing.”
McKinnon, who is also a co-host of “The Circus” on Showtime, says the advanced age of the candidates at the top of the ticket, President Donald Trump is 74 and former Vice President Joe Biden is 77, may be cause for concern among voters. Either man would become the oldest president this country has ever had. Throw in Trump’s recent hospitalization for the coronavirus, and the phrase “one heartbeat away from the presidency” means a lot more.
“This is the most elevated undercard in a long time,” agreed Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was in Salt Lake City as a media surrogate for Harris.
Page, a journalist with USA Today, asked the candidates about contingency plans if the next president became disabled and can’t do the job. Both Pence and Harris ducked it, moving to other topics. It was a common occurrence during the 90-minute debate. But the question remains.
If voters viewed the debate as a sort of job interview to judge whether Harris and Pence were up to becoming the commander in chief, then it’s certainly possible the debate’s impact will be more than ephemeral.
“For those individuals who have concerns with Trump, I think this gave them a good chance to judge the person who sits by his side,” said Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown following the debate.
Brown says he understands that voters may have some issues with Trump’s style, and Pence’s calm demeanor on the debate stage was a good contrast, especially after last week’s chaotic debate between Trump and Biden.
“Pence and Harris offered different ideas on virtually every topic they discussed tonight,” Brown said. “I think this may reassure voters who are hesitant to vote for Trump and bring them back to his side.”
“I certainly viewed it as a job interview,” said Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant. “Any American who is not looking at these candidates as a potential replacement in the Oval Office is missing the mark somewhere. When you have two gentlemen in their 70s at the top of the ticket in the middle of a global pandemic, that should be a consideration. Voters have to decide whether they’re comfortable with Kamala Harris or Mike Pence as president.”
Merchant says he felt Harris’s performance on the stage was solid and polished, while Pence spent too much time reciting “talking points,” which may not wash away the sour taste from Trump’s constant interruptions during the last debate.
“Pence didn’t make a mistake tonight, but he needed to hit a home run, and I don’t think that happened,” Merchant said.
Another way to judge whether the debate left a mark on the electorate? See if it changes the trajectory of the race.
Entering the night, the Trump campaign was trailing in the national polls and behind in several key swing states that will decide the outcome of the race. The Real Clear Politics national average gave Biden and Harris with a nearly 10-point lead. Is it possible for a single debate to move the needle that much?
“I certainly haven’t seen that happen,” says McKinnon. “It’s not impossible, but it’s really difficult.”
Political forecaster Stuart Rothenberg put his assessment of the stakes from this, and really any vice presidential debate, much more bluntly on Twitter.
“Voters don’t vote for VP,” he tweeted. “Trump will dominate the narrative again starting tomorrow. But we will all watch the VP debate, because it’s what we do.”
Predictably, both camps claimed victory minutes after the debate wrapped up.
There’s one more stat to consider. More than 5.6 million voters have already cast their ballots ahead of Election Day. No matter what they heard or saw tonight, it won’t make any difference for them. Still, the debate was well timed for Utahns. They’ll get their ballots next week. Trump and Biden are scheduled to take the stage for the second of their three debates on Oct. 15.
Regardless of whether the debate makes a lasting difference or is ultimately ephemeral, Utahns took pride that the nation’s attention was on Salt Lake City during an important political moment.
Sen. Mitt Romney joined in the chorus of congratulations on Twitter, showering his approval on the successful event, saying the Utah Debate Commission and the U. “deserve tremendous credit for delivering this debate under tough circumstances so the American people can be better informed about the candidates and the issues.”
Thomas Wright, the former co-chair of the Utah Debate Commission who, along with Scott Howell, played an critical role in bringing the historic event to Utah, said the state more than met the challenge.
“It’s by no chance when the country is looking for a sense of normalcy and peaceful discourse, Utah steps up to meet that need,” said Wright. "I am extremely proud of those who worked meticulously and tirelessly to put on such a great event.
“I knew if Utah was given the chance to host a national debate, the country would be impressed,” he added. “Tonight Utah was able to show everyone the unique and civil way we do politics.”