Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate turned out its lowest ratings since 2000 – for obvious reasons. Other than the VP Debate being notoriously “less newsy” than the coveted Presidential ones, a Mike Pence-Tim Kaine tête-à-tête didn’t really seem all that exciting in the ramp-up.
Can’t wait for the VP debate tonight!!!! pic.twitter.com/33cx5GZWLo
— Tom Blake (@ThomasBlake2) October 4, 2016
In a “PostPartisan Pregame” event hosted by the Washington Post in their K Street offices, panelists said that while the Veep Debate would, expectedly, draw a whole lot less attention than its Presidential counterpart, it still carried some weight – for the candidates and for themselves.
— Julia Arciga (@JuliaArciga) October 4, 2016
“Well, vice presidents really have one role, whether it’s in the debate or in the White House, and that is to support the president,” said Elaine Kamarck, director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institute. “Because, to the extent that they are perceived as supporting the president or the presidential candidate, that increases their own power.”
“Today, vice presidents actually do give advice, they are advisors to the president,” said Christine Emba, Editor of “In Theory” at the Washington Post. “They have these weekly meetings [with the President], they take a role in formulating policy and we’ve seen in that increase more, y’know, with Dick Cheney and past presidents.”
Panelists also speculated that, since both Pence and Kaine were seasoned politicians, that the debate would be a special opportunity to address the “s-word”: Substance.
“Oh, I think there’s a good chance of that because neither of these people are as buttoned up as Hillary Clinton or as odd as Donald Trump, so I think that they can, in the way Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman had a pretty serious debate, I think they can do that,” said David Boaz, Executive Vice President at the Cato Institute.
The “Pregame” turned out to be more lit than the party itself.
Raking in a mere 37.2 million according to the Nielsen numbers (which excludes viewers who are livestreaming it on the web), Tuesday’s performance pales in comparison to the Biden-Ryan debate in 2012 which had 51.4 million viewers, and the Biden-Palin debate which had a record-making 69.9 million viewers.
In the post-debate discourse, the general consensus was that Pence walked away the winner. 48 percent of watchers claimed that Pence won the night, beating Kaine’s 42 percent in a CNN/ORC poll. Even pundits were keen to call the winner: Matt Viser, deputy Washington bureau chief at the Boston Globe, said, “Kaine did a better job defending Clinton than Pence did defending Trump. But on stylistic points, Pence probably won.” According to CNN senior producer Edward Mejia Davis, the “VP Debate goes to Pence — he showed less can sometimes be more — Kaine looked over-caffeinated; Pence looked calm and reassuring.”
According to Twitter analysis from TalkWalker, Pence also won the social media war, walking away with 1.5 million Twitter mentions in comparison to Kaine, who only garnered 1.2 million.
But does this matter?
Political media is buzzing about the fact that Pence may have outshone Trump with this debate. With the hashtag #FlipTheTicket gaining steam on Twitter during the debate, who can blame them for noting it?
“Is there anyone outside of the Trump family who isn’t wishing we could flip the ticket?” an Ohio Republican told Politico. “Mike Pence projects calm reassurance and strength and an ability to articulate a vision and policies Americans support. For the first time in months we heard a serious case for conservative principles.”
As for Kaine, his performance won much less praise within the media sphere, calling his constant interruptions “so distracting that it often detracted from the substance of the debate and made policy conversations hard to follow.” But some claim it was because that he wasn’t trying to win, he was trying “to aim over Pence and hit Trump.”
“It didn’t really work, and not for lack of trying,” wrote Glenn Thrush, Chief Political Correspondent at Politico. “[…] he came off as a bit nervous, like a frustrated school kid trying to disgorge a memorized speech if only his rowdy classmates would allow him to deliver it. At times, he seemed peevish.”
But we’re forgetting about someone, aren’t we? We heard her name a lot, but not her voice.
Elaine Quijano, former CNN anchor and current CBSN anchor (aka: the digital news platform of CBS News) represented the first Asian American to anchor a general-election debate and the first to come from a primarily digital news network. Unfortunately, her performance was seen by many as less than spectacular.
Even though she had an uphill battle with Pence and Kaine – being interrupted a grand total of 23 times – the most common critiques were: she moved from topic to topic far too quickly (stunting any meaningful exchanges), she didn’t intervene enough, and she simply lost control of the debate.
“To be sure, Quijano had an extremely challenging task. There is only one vice presidential debate, and the format required her to address nine topics in the span of just 90 minutes,” wrote Dylan Byers, Senior Media Reporter at CNN. “But her performance served as a reminder that debates are not scripted events, and they require moderators who can be fluid and adapt to the direction the candidates choose to take the discussion.”