The vice presidential debate did little to change voters minds, offering a lot of policy talking points but in a way, that’s the intent of a debate, according to Richard Pineda, director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.
He told Texas Standard that viewers who tuned in Wednesday to see fireworks between Democratic candidate Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence, would have come away empty handed. Pineda said those “hoping for a popcorn debate” instead left with an “oatmeal debate” as both candidates hit on their campaign platforms, rarely veering off those scripts.
The two debated for an hour and a half, and each lobbed a few zingers to the other. Mostly, though, Pineda said each candidate used the moment to speak to their bases, and it’s unlikely either managed to sway voters from the other side to choose them in November.
“They met what they needed to do. I don’t think that there’s going to be a major shift; I don’t think that voters are going to be changing position because of last night’s debate,” Pineda said.
The candidates talked about climate change, criminal justice reform and more, but Pineda said immigration was strangely missing from the discussion. That surprised him, especially the Biden campaign’s recently $6 million ad buy in Texas where immigration is still a very important issue. Pineda thought Harris might have used the debate to appeal to Texans on that topic.
Harris did discuss fracking – something relevant to Texans, especially those in the oil and gas business. It came up during a discussion about climate change and the Green New Deal, which Pineda says Republicans use as a “dogwhistle” to rile up conservatives. Harris said a Biden administration wouldn’t ban fracking, and Pineda said her affirmation of that might not sit well with more progressive Democrats who advocate for stronger climate change regulations.
What got the most attention, at least on social media, was the fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head. Pineda said online chatter over moments like that could indicate that voters aren’t tuned into substantive issues. Or, it could just mean they’re looking for levity amid a year of crises and political drama.
“These debates have changed so much and their impact has been minimized so much that maybe that’s people’s best takeaway,” he said, “that what they’re going to remember after last night’s debate was the fly moreso than anybody’s position on fracking or anybody’s position on international relations.”