Q: What have we learned from the debate?
I’m not sure we learned much. We heard campaign talking points repeatedly, Kaine attacking Trump’s controversial statements about various groups and Pence criticizing Clinton’s emails and her performance as Secretary of State. Both came off as decent men, and supporters of both presidential candidates were reassured that their respective VP candidates were qualified to serve as president. For those concerned about Trump’s temperament, Pence’s steady demeanor and ability to stay focused was especially reassuring.
Q: What were the main points of the debate?
Kaine was aggressive throughout the debate, pointing out that Pence could not defend Trump’s derogatory comments about Mexicans and women, praise of Vladimir Putin, and refusal to release his tax returns. Pence condemned Clinton’s characterization of Trump supporters as “deplorables,” and characterized her and President Obama as weak foreign policy leaders. In several areas this was more like a traditional Democratic-Republican debate, with Pence supporting tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation, and anti-abortion laws and Kaine advocating a higher minimum wage, gun control, and reproductive freedom.
Q: Who won the debate? Why?
Pence stayed composed throughout Kaine’s frequent interruptions. In that sense, Pence appeared more presidential. In addition, Pence brought up issues about Clinton that Trump was unable to during the first presidential debate. Finally, Pence used various strategies to deal with Kaine’s attacks on Trump, including denial, distorting the truth, ignoring Kaine, and stating his own, somewhat different positions on issues.
Q: Who lost? Why?
Kaine lost on style, adopting the attack dog role too eagerly. On the other hand, he was successful in keeping Pence on the defensive and making the larger point that much of what Trump has said was indefensible.
Q: How important was the debate for the upcoming election?
Over the long term, the VP debate will have virtually no effect. However, Pence’s competent, steady performance served as a brief respite for Republicans from the almost-continuous run of bad news about Trump since the first presidential debate. At the same time, it reminded voters of how unprepared Trump was at the first debate and how unhinged he has been in the week that followed. In short, Pence helped Pence but did not necessarily help Trump.
Q: What’s next?
The pressure will be on Trump at the second presidential debate on Sunday to turn in a Pence-like performance. Trump has yet to assure voters that he is qualified to serve as president. Clinton had better be prepared to defend herself from an unrelenting stream of attacks on her personal behavior and conduct in office. We will see whether Trump raises the issue of the Clintons’ marriage, as he has done on the campaign trail.