Pence and Harris’s low-key debate won’t change many voters’ minds, Northeastern faculty say

Vice President Mike Pence listens as Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Pool via AP

The task before Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, going into Wednesday’s vice presidential debate, was to project leadership, appear ready to assume command, and defend the top of the ticket, according to Costas Panagopoulos, head of the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University.

In that sense, both candidates accomplished what they had to do, landing a few punches in the process without delivering any knockouts, he says. 

But with a Supreme Court nomination hearing on the way next week, their discussion set the stage for a looming political conflict.

Political scientists who reviewed the debate said the candidates didn’t always present the full picture of every issue, and probably didn’t change many voters’ minds.

That will likely help Biden given his sizable—and growing—lead, at least in most national polls but also in key swing state polls, says assistant professor of political science Nicholas Beauchamp, who studies political behavior, campaigns, and psychology.

“If you’re in the lead, you don’t want to rock the boat, and Harris accomplished that by coming across as reassuring,” Beauchamp says.

But Harris left herself open to criticism when she avoided answering a question about whether Democrats would try to “pack” the Supreme Court with more than nine justices if Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, ascends to the nation’s highest court 

On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to open hearings on Barrett’s nomination, a move that moderator Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, noted would tilt the court in favor of conservatives. 

Harris, a former attorney general in California, is a member of that panel.

She said the nomination should not be considered so close to an election, and invoked a similar point in history involving the 16th president of the United States, a Republican.

In 1864, she noted, when Abraham Lincoln was up for reelection, a seat on the Supreme Court opened 27 days before the election. Lincoln’s party was in charge of the White House, and the Senate, too—as it is presently.

“But Honest Abe said it’s not the right thing to do. The American people are voting right now, and it should be their decision about who will serve on this most important body for a lifetime.”

Pence tried to pin Harris down on whether she and Biden would look to expand the number of justices beyond nine, which he said has been the norm for 150 years. This idea has been floated by some previous Democratic presidential candidates who remain furious that the Senate refused to hold hearings on Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination in the final year of the Obama Administration.

Harris didn’t directly respond, though Pence tried to press her repeatedly.

Beauchamp says Harris’s position on the issue would have little effect on the court’s future, since it’s unlikely that Democrats will actually move to expand the high court.

“In the absence of a threat it doesn’t make a difference whether Biden or Harris is in favor of packing the court,” he says. “The Democrats have rarely successfully made that sort of threat in recent memory.”

Besides, Beauchamp adds, answering the “packing” question would likely have diverted media attention away from the administration’s handling of the coronavirus, something Harris aggressively criticized at the beginning of the debate.

Asked by Page about the administration’s handling of the pandemic, Harris accused the president of minimizing the seriousness of COVID-19 and said Biden has a national strategy for contact tracing, testing, and administration of a vaccine.

Pence responded by pointing out that, early in public awareness of the pandemic, Trump suspended all travel from China into the United States.

Page also asked Harris if she would take a COVID-19 vaccine if one were approved by the Trump administration before the election. “If the public health professionals, if Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it. Absolutely,” Harris said.

“But,” the California Democrat added, “if Donald Trump tells us to take it, I’m not taking it.”

The vice president responded by predicting that a vaccine will be ready by the end of the year.

“So the fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine if a vaccine emerges during the Trump administration, I think, is unconscionable,” he said. “And, Senator, I just ask you, stop playing politics with people’s lives.”

The only face-to-face clash between the two running mates was held in a partially filled auditorium at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The area is in the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases and recently reached a daily record for positive infections, local news media reported.

Pence and Harris have both tested negative. They were seated more than 12 feet apart, with see-through plastic dividers between their desks to stem the airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

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