The Memo: Team Trump looks to Pence to steady ship in VP debate

The Memo: Team Trump looks to Pence to steady ship in VP debate
© Getty Images

Vice President Pence will be looking to stabilize the Trump campaign at Wednesday’s debate with Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris invokes MLK in voting rights push, urges Senate to 'do its job' Voting rights is a constitutional right: Failure is not an option Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket MORE (D-Calif.) — but he will be battling strong headwinds.

President TrumpDonald TrumpSanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Laura Ingraham 'not saying' if she'd support Trump in 2024 The Hill's 12:30 Report: Djokovic may not compete in French Open over vaccine requirement MORE’s struggle with COVID-19 remains the dominant political story. Trump has fallen even further behind his Democratic opponent Joe BidenJoe BidenMacro grid will keep the lights on Pelosi suggests filibuster supporters 'dishonor' MLK's legacy on voting rights Sanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown MORE in opinion polls after the first presidential debate last week. And the president further roiled the waters on Tuesday by announcing that there would be no further economic stimulus until after the election, causing stock markets to tumble.

What Pence can do to overcome those dynamics is not entirely clear. 


The vice president performed well in his sole 2016 debate against Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat This week: Democrats set for showdown on voting rights, filibuster Democrats see good chance of Garland prosecuting Trump MORE (D-Va.), Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket A year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low MORE’s running mate. But there is always a question mark over how much vice presidential debates really matter.

“You always want to have a strong night but I’m also a believer that there are not a ton of undecided voters left — this is so much of a base election,” said Republican strategist Matt Gorman. “When it comes to giving fodder for the press, and providing some fun viewing, debates like these are really a great experience. But for changing votes and minds, I’m not sure how effective it will be.”

That fits with the patterns of the past. Some vice presidential debates have been the subject of massive public interest, such as Biden’s 2008 clash with GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Others have featured dramatic moments, the most renowned being Democrat Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” takedown of Dan Quayle in 1988.

But historians search in vain for examples of a vice presidential clash that has altered the course of an election campaign. 

A more likely scenario is that a solid performance can settle some nerves for whichever side is perceived to have done best. Biden’s strong showing against Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanOn The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Stopping the next insurrection Former Sen. Bob Dole dies at 98 MORE in 2012 calmed Democrats after then-President Obama had underperformed in his first debate against Republican presidential nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt Romney​​Democrats make voting rights push ahead of Senate consideration Sunday shows - Voting rights legislation dominates Clyburn says he 'wholeheartedly' endorses Biden's voting rights remarks MORE.

The Trump campaign insists that Pence can amplify its case that the Democratic ticket is too left-wing for mainstream America. 

“This is another opportunity to expose the radical agenda the Biden-Harris ticket is carrying for the extreme left. Kamala Harris is the most liberal member of the entire U.S. Senate and she serves to push Joe Biden even further to the left,” Trump campaign manager Tim Murtaugh told The Hill via email, citing Biden’s tax plans, environmental positions and push for immigration reform.

Murtaugh added: “President Trump won the first debate and Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePences' pet rabbit, Marlon Bundo, dies Pence says both Capitol riot and nixing filibuster are a 'power grab' McCarthy says he won't cooperate with 'illegitimate' Jan. 6 probe MORE will be well-prepared and ready for his turn.”

The evidence points in the opposite direction when it comes to Trump and the first debate, however. 

Polls conducted since that clash last Tuesday have shown Biden with some of his largest leads of the campaign. Four national polls in recent days have given Biden a lead of 10 percentage points or greater. A CNN poll released Tuesday put Biden up by 16 points nationally.


Those polls were conducted mostly before Trump was hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday evening. 

It is possible that the president will garner some sympathy for his struggle with the virus. But it is equally likely that some of his actions, including taking off his mask as he returned to the White House on Monday, will add to the criticism of him as reckless. His handling of the pandemic has been one of his worst issues in terms of public opinion.

Given the GOP ticket’s troubles, most Democrats believe that Harris needs only to avoid trouble on Wednesday evening.

“I’m not aware that any vice presidential debate in the past has moved the needle at all and I’m pretty sure this one is not going to be the exception to the rule,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley. Regarding Harris, he added that all that was required was for her “to get by with as few mistakes as possible. A draw would be just fine.”

One of the more serious challenges Harris faces is the possibility of expectations getting out of hand. Harris, a former attorney general of California, has delivered some impactful moments in Senate questioning of figures such as Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughVoting rights, Trump's Big Lie, and Republicans' problem with minorities Supreme Court agrees to hear case on HS coach's suspension over on-field prayers The Supreme Court, vaccination and government by Fox News MORE and former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: For Trump endorsement: The more sordid, the better Those predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold MORE.

But Pence, who had a successful talk radio career before being elected to Congress in 2000, is an effective communicator in his own right, and not easily rattled.

Still, if Harris must manage expectations, it is Pence who has the steeper climb overall.

“There is only a month left until the election and President Trump’s reelection prospects are in peril. Pence must do something to shake up the narrative of the race,” said Aaron Kall, the director of debate at the University of Michigan, and the editor and co-author of a book on Trump’s debate performances. 

“Pence must hope for a debate Hail Mary that shifts the news cycle following the debate away from coronavirus onto a more favorable political terrain.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.