How Much Do Vice-Presidential Debates Matter?

How Much Do Vice-Presidential Debates Matter?

Why you should care

Because the vice-presidential debate is happening tonight, but it might not be crucial in the way you’d expect.

Donald Trump knows all too well that Hillary Clinton has an edge on him, but could the billionaire’s political wingman come out in full force tonight? Yes, we’re talking about Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who has the chance to bring some much-needed momentum to the Trump train.

We’ve seen dramatic moments play out in vice presidential debates before, where weakened presidential contenders get a jolt of confidence. When Vice President George H.W. Bush ungraciously offered to “help” Geraldine Ferraro understand the difference between the situations in Iran and Lebanon in their 1984 debate, the Democratic nominee for vice president retorted: “I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.” Snap.

Then, four years later, another Democratic VP nominee, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, landed his “you’re no Jack Kennedy” zinger on Republican opponent Dan Quayle in their debate, arguably giving his running mate Michael Dukakis a confidence boost. And who can forget the debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan in the last presidential election? It may not have affected voter preferences of the two tickets, but Biden’s strong performance (“With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey”) helped arrest the negative momentum following President Barack Obama’s disastrous performance in the first presidential debate.

As demonstrated in OZY’s TV series on modern presidential campaigns, The Contenders: 16 for ’16 (Tuesdays at 8 p.m. EST on PBS), there is no shortage of memorable moments in U.S. vice-presidential debates. But as we await the latest veep-wannabe showdown between Pence and Tim Kaine tonight, it’s useful to remember that despite the hype and the great one-liners, the chances that this year’s undercard debate will impact voters’ impressions of the presidential candidates or affect the outcome of the race are pretty slight.

Not a single VP debate from 1976 to 2008 had any real effect on voter preferences.

That’s according to a 2012 analysis by Gallup. If you look at the change in Gallup’s tracking polls before and after each of the debates, the median change in voter support was around one percentage point for both the Republican and Democratic tickets. University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, political scientist Thomas Holbrook came to a similar conclusion in his book Do Campaigns Matter?, in which his earlier analysis of the 1984, 1988 and 1992 debates found “very little evidence that vice presidential debates do much at all to alter the political landscape,” even Bentsen’s widely remembered skewering of Quayle.

And it makes sense that the vice presidential debates do not move the needle of public opinion in any meaningful way, says Kyle Kopko, a political scientist at Elizabethtown College and co-author of The VP Advantage: How Running Mates Influence Home State Voting in Presidential Elections, since “the vice-presidential candidates consistently talk about the presidential candidates [and their policies] rather than themselves.”

Perhaps the most significant role the VP debate can serve, especially for relative unknowns like Kaine and Pence, is as an opportunity for the candidates to introduce themselves to the American people.

But that’s not to say VP debates are irrelevant, says Kopko. For one thing, something outlandish could happen during the debate that could help contribute to a broader turn in public opinion. The poor performance by independent candidate Ross Perot’s running mate, Adm. James Stockdale, in the 1992 VP debate — in which he opened by asking, “Who am I? Why am I here?” and later requested that a question be repeated because he didn’t have his hearing aid turned up — helped cement the impression that the Texas billionaire wasn’t ready for prime time.

Perhaps the most significant role the VP debate can serve, especially for relative unknowns like Kaine and Pence, is as an opportunity for the candidates to introduce themselves to the American people. This is important regardless of any impact on voter choice, says Kopko, because one of these candidates could play a key advising role in the White House, or become president himself.

And, it might be added, it’s important regardless of the theatrics or entertainment value of the debate itself. Don’t we all wish we had paid a bit more attention to the rather sleepy 2000 VP debate between Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney in which a future, very influential vice president observed, “If in fact Saddam Hussein were taking steps to try to rebuild nuclear capability or weapons of mass destruction, you would have to give very serious consideration to military action to stop that activity.”

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