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VP Debates Usually Don’t Matter. But We’re Way Past Usual.

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Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript under has been calmly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): President Trump should not be out of the woods together with his coronavirus prognosis — he’s again on the White House now after three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and nonetheless receiving therapy — however the vice presidential debate is shifting forward as deliberate.

There are various new precautions in place for the talk, too, given the renewed deal with the coronavirus, together with a hotly disputed plexiglass barrier to separate the candidates and no handshakes upon arrival.

We have much less of an thought this time round about which matters Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris will debate, however no doubt the coronavirus will probably be entrance and heart — in reality, it is perhaps laborious for different matters to interrupt by means of within the 90 minutes they’ve.

So let’s begin there.

We know from our ballot with Ipsos earlier than the final presidential debate that the coronavirus is an important concern to voters right here in 2020, and that the majority voters suppose Biden is healthier on the problem.

On COVID-19, nearly everybody prefers Biden

Share of people that named every concern as an important one going through the U.S., and whether or not they suppose Trump or Biden would deal with that concern higher, based on a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos ballot

Who’s higher on the problem…


The economic system21.679.1


Health care7.922.0


Racial inequality7.48.4


Climate change5.22.6


Violent crime4.879.3


The Supreme Court4.550.7


Economic inequality3.015.1








Gun coverage1.966.9




Respondents who didn’t identify a high concern will not be proven.

Data comes from polling performed by Ipsos for FiveThirtyEight, utilizing Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, a probability-based on-line panel that’s recruited to be consultant of the U.S. inhabitants. The ballot was performed Sept. 21-28 amongst a normal inhabitants pattern of adults, with 3,133 respondents and a margin of error of +/- 1.9 share factors.

How do you see the dialog across the coronavirus taking part in out tonight? What will probably be Harris’s stance? Pence’s? This will probably be the concern tonight, proper?

meredithconroy (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University, San Bernardino, and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Yeah, Sarah, there’s little doubt that coronavirus will probably be the concern tonight. After months of Trump making an attempt to downplay the virus, Pence will probably be pressured to grapple with it extra straight, given the president’s current prognosis.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I might be shocked if the talk doesn’t kick off with the coronavirus and spend a considerable period of time on it. And I’m actually curious to see whether or not the share of Americans who say that the coronavirus is an important concern to them rises in our Ipsos ballot. I haven’t seen the brand new knowledge but, however it is going to be obtainable to you, expensive reader, on the dwell weblog tonight!

Specifically, I’m curious to see whether or not the share of voters who again Trump and prioritize the coronavirus rises. There was an enormous partisan break up on the problem final time, with Democrats much more prone to say it was their high concern.

meredithconroy: That will probably be fascinating to see. I feel it’s potential it’s nonetheless under the economic system for Republicans within the ballot, although. The administration hasn’t actually modified its tune on the severity of the virus, regardless of the president’s prognosis, proper? In reality, you can argue their messaging is much more reckless?

nrakich: Right — in reality, the president has downplayed the severity of the virus within the final couple days, tweeting “don’t be afraid of Covid” and taking off his masks when he returned to the White House.

sarah: Does Pence lean into that messaging, then?

nrakich: I form of suppose he’ll attempt to stroll it again. Pence is form of the ticket’s “what the president meant to say was …” ambassador.

meredithconroy: Right. And Pence comes at this from a considerably completely different place than Trump — he’s charged with main the White House Coronavirus Task Force. I’m unsure meaning he echoes pointers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or corrects his boss’s current tweets and messages, although.

In reality, maybe foreshadowing what to anticipate, Pence’s spokesperson, Katie Miller, already chided Harris’s camp for asking for extra precautions on the debate, saying, “If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it.”

nrakich: A extra fascinating query is perhaps, how laborious does Harris assault Trump for this? She has a number of materials to work with (e.g., not sporting a masks, not taking the correct precautions to forestall unfold amongst White House staffers), however will it come off in dangerous style?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior author): Doesn’t appear too laborious for Harris to say, “I wish the president good health,” however then harp on his failures in coping with the virus.

And I don’t count on Pence to stroll again a ton of what Trump has mentioned or performed. The form of non-Trump Republican place on the coronavirus has been: “We can’t shut down the country in fear of this virus, kids need to go to school, our economy can’t be closed,” and I assume Pence will say variations of that all through the talk. It’s a extra well mannered model of what Trump says, however not essentially all that completely different.

meredithconroy: Yeah. I feel you’re proper, Perry.

nrakich: I don’t learn about that, Perry. The polls counsel persons are actually turned off by Trump’s blasé perspective towards the virus.

I feel Pence will wish to counter the notion that Trump isn’t taking it severely — which by definition I feel includes telling individuals to, nicely, “worry about Covid” (although in fact not in these actual phrases).

meredithconroy: I feel it’s potential they’re previous that now, Nathaniel, on condition that Trump is doubling down on downplaying the seriousness of the virus.

sarah: If something, Pence may wish to actively pivot away from dialog on the coronavirus as a lot as he can, as a result of that is one thing Trump has persistently gotten poor marks on:

nrakich: That would form of be the technique we noticed on the Republican National Convention? Try to alter the topic to one thing just like the pre-pandemic roaring economic system or democratic socialism. It’s tougher to do in a debate, although.

meredithconroy: Yes. I feel Harris would wish to hold the deal with the coronavirus and people most affected by it. Plus, she’s a great messenger for that. More ladies than males are going through job losses, and Black communities account for a disproportionate variety of deaths.

sarah: But in the event you’re Pence, possibly pivot to one thing like speak round an upcoming vaccine, or the upcoming Supreme Court nomination?

meredithconroy: Speaking of messengers … Pence is a good spokesperson for the SCOTUS nomination, as a non secular liberty conservative.

perry: A debate with a number of deal with COVID-19 will probably be dangerous for Trump-Pence. So I might assume the moderator, to point out stability, will harp on some topic that’s designed to make Harris look dangerous. My assumption is that this will probably be about abolishing/defunding the police. Also, Biden form of non-answered on abolishing the filibuster and including seats to the Supreme Court within the final debate, so I might assume that could be a topic that Harris will probably be pushed on, too.

sarah: That’s a great level, Perry. And I can see how a debate across the Supreme Court may probably again Harris right into a nook, too, if Pence is adamant in regards to the GOP’s timeline to verify Amy Coney Barrett earlier than the election, which could push Harris into saying one thing about rising the variety of justices on the court docket.

nrakich: Harris can also be on the Senate Judiciary Committee and was an enormous Brett Kavanaugh opponent. Pence could attempt to accuse her of obstructing Republican-appointed judges out of hand.

But once more, the polls will not be on Republicans’ facet right here. Most Americans suppose the Senate ought to wait till after the election to verify a substitute for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

perry: Only 32 % of Americans assist including justices to the Supreme Court, in comparison with 54 % opposed, in a current ABC News/Washington Post ballot. At the identical time, a 6-Three court docket may strike down Biden’s total legislative agenda. So I might assume Harris desires to remain obscure on that concern, as Biden has.

nrakich: Why do you suppose they’re being coy on that, Perry? I don’t actually get it.

Even in a dream Democratic situation, there received’t be sufficient votes within the Senate to pack the court docket anyway. And as Perry mentioned, polling reveals most individuals are against it. So saying “we oppose court packing” looks as if the politically expedient reply.

perry: Because I feel a 6-Three court docket will probably be open to hanging down any Democratic laws even on the flimsiest of grounds, so I feel they should hold the thought open.

nrakich: That’s truthful. And I don’t suppose court docket packing is excessive on voters’ radar. I simply thought it was a bizarre unforced error by Biden to dodge the query on the final debate.

perry: The Democrats’ precise place might be nearer to: “A Supreme Court that strikes down Obamacare, Roe v. Wade and the Voting Rights Act with Barrett and Gorsuch in the majority is illegitimate, in our view, and we would take action to address that.” I simply don’t know if Harris can say that proper now.

sarah: I’m shocked both candidate bought in something substantive within the final debate with all of the interruptions. But talking of debates … though we’re fairly skeptical that debates transfer the needle all that a lot (though we did see a slight uptick for Biden following the primary debate), do you suppose this debate might need extra of an impact simply given the uncertainty across the final two debates really occurring?

Trump has mentioned he plans to debate subsequent week, however is it potential the talk fee received’t let him due to his prognosis?

nrakich: I don’t see subsequent week’s debate occurring as deliberate. If Trump insists on going, I don’t suppose Biden will go.

I do suppose that makes at the moment’s debate extra vital than a vice-presidential debate often is (which isn’t crucial).

Also, I feel Trump’s prognosis has highlighted, erm, shall I say, the fragility of each presidential candidates, which could have voters taking a more in-depth take a look at their No. 2s.

perry: I’m actually skeptical the talk fee stops the sitting president from debating. The individuals answerable for these debates didn’t pressure his workers to put on masks or cease him from interrupting each 10 seconds within the final debate.

sarah: But on the very least, they’ll make him take a COVID-19 take a look at and if it comes again constructive … I feel they’d should cease him, or at the very least that’s what their pointers appear to counsel.

perry: I don’t suppose they’ve the ability to make the sitting president take a COVID-19 take a look at and reveal the outcomes. I is perhaps flawed. But it is a actually fascinating take a look at of energy.

And I feel Trump is not going to again down.

meredithconroy: I don’t wish to speculate, however relying on Trump’s health, he could hope they do cancel the talk. We’ll simply have to attend and see.

But another excuse this debate is perhaps extra vital than a typical VP debate is just that extra persons are paying consideration proper now, proper?

sarah: Or extra severely contemplating who’s within the No. 2 function?

nrakich: Not certain about that, Meredith. The TV rankings for the primary debate have been down from 2016, identical to they have been for the conventions. (Insert compulsory caveat about how TV rankings are falling throughout the board and it’s potential individuals simply switched from watching the talk on TV to streaming it on-line.)

perry: So specializing in this debate, I really suppose this debate issues electorally. Some of those polls have Trump within the low 40s, down by double digits. I assume meaning some GOP-leaning voters are undecided proper now. So if Pence form of reminds these those that they actually hate the Democrats, even when they aren’t that into Trump, that’s useful for the GOP facet.

meredithconroy: Yeah, I feel that’s a risk, Perry. I feel lots of people — possibly extra reasonable individuals or the much less politically engaged — got here away from that first debate saying “Wow that was chaos, and American politics is a mess,” however not essentially attributing the chaos to the instigator (Trump). If Pence can assuage these emotions, I feel individuals on the fence may, for now, keep on the fence as a substitute of deciding to remain home or vote for Biden.

sarah: Trump’s approval score has slowly been ticking again up, too, though his standing within the nationwide polls hasn’t improved

How do you have in mind Trump’s approval score when occupied with his standing within the horse race? Is this among the upside Pence may probably faucet into tonight?

nrakich: We at FiveThirtyEight are skeptical about weighting polls by partisanship, however it’s at the very least potential there’s a contact of nonresponse bias (i.e., demoralized Republicans don’t wish to take polls proper now) within the polls instantly following the primary debate.

So a extra, er, standard efficiency by Pence may appropriate that.

But I wouldn’t learn an excessive amount of into Trump’s approval score. We’re lower than a month till the election; head-to-head polls have totally come into their predictive energy. Plus, it’s not like Trump’s approval score has improved to 50 % and even 45 %. It’s at 43 % — proper round the place it’s been for many of his time period.

sarah: OK, to wrap. Tonight we see the opposite half of the ticket. What case does Harris have to make for Biden-Harris? And what case does Pence have to make for Trump-Pence?

perry: Biden is successful. Harris’s job is to do no hurt. To me, Pence can’t totally clarify away Trump’s dealing with of COVID-19. So he must hammer different points (the police, the Supreme Court, taxes) the place Republicans are stronger.

nrakich: I don’t suppose voters determine who to vote for primarily based on the underside half of the ticket. So I feel Pence and Harris have to efficiently argue that their operating mates are the only option for the nation.

But voters already know Trump and Biden so nicely — very, only a few haven’t any opinion of them in polls — that I’m unsure the candidates can say something to alter their minds. Honestly, possibly what Pence must do is create some extremely newsworthy second that distracts from what’s frankly a horrible information cycle proper now for Trump.

meredithconroy: Ha! Interesting concept, Nathaniel. But has Pence ever pushed the information cycle?

I anticipate that Pence will use the talk to tie Harris to the “far/radical left,” like Trump tried to do to Biden within the debate final week. And I’m going to threat being very flawed and speculate that Pence additionally doubles down on Trump’s current messages across the coronavirus and tries to minimize its seriousness.

nrakich: “But has Pence ever driven the news cycle?” –> No.

And that’s the ballgame.

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