The steady conservative Republican hand vs. the electrifying liberal Democratic upstart. Squint just a little, and tonight’s vice presidential debate (9 p.m. ET) looks a lot like presidential debates of yore — just with plexiglass. Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris will take the stage tonight in Utah, in the wake of the coronavirus case that shook the world. Read on for more about the veep battle, what undecided voters are saying and the volatile race ahead.
Daniel Malloy, Senior Editor
1. High Stakes
Is this the most important veep debate ever? If her ticket wins, Harris is a likely prospect to take over for Biden in four years — if not sooner. Her “heartbeat away” credentials are even more important given that Biden would be the oldest president ever from Day One. Meanwhile, Trump’s diagnosis has brought new attention to Pence, the loyal No. 2 who will be thrust into the Oval Office if the president takes a turn for the worse. Pence has led Trump’s coronavirus task force this year, and has his own eye on 2024.
2. The Plexiglass Debate
The debate before the debate, which will be moderated by Susan Page of USA Today, has focused on the setup. The campaigns agreed to move the candidates farther apart — from 7 feet to 12 feet — and Pence’s team reluctantly agreed to a plexiglass barrier. Pence has so far tested negative, and his physician says the veep does not need to quarantine because of close contact to anyone with the virus, despite Pence’s attendance at what appears to be a White House superspreader event announcing Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, where Pence sat directly in front of the now-infected Sen. Mike Lee.
3. Harris the Debater
During a 2016 debate for California Senate, Harris’ chief opponent, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, barreled over her allotted time on one answer and then finished with a “dab,” a viral dance move of the day. The buttoned-down Harris half-chuckled, turned to the camera and said, “So, there’s a clear difference between the candidates in this race.” Harris is best known for her slashing, prosecutorial style on stage — most prominently deployed against Biden during the presidential primary in a scripted attack on school busing — and has said that she was chosen to “prosecute the case” against Trump and Pence. But she is also grappling with dicey gender politics about how to remain “likable” as well as forceful on stage. At least she’ll know what to do if Pence starts doing the WAP dance.
4. Pence the Debater
Don’t count on surprises from Pence, though. As his Indiana gubernatorial opponent John Gregg once said: “In the 2012 campaign, when we were closing the gap, we had a couple of debates and he never got off message.” A former conservative talk show host who’s in control at a microphone, Pence is the disciplined yin to Trump’s improv yang. Watch for him to play a reassuring role after Trump’s flailing bulldozer of a performance last week. He will resist getting pinned down on Trump scandals while attacking Harris for being too left-wing, reminiscent of his effective stonewalling of Sen. Tim Kaine in the 2016 vice presidential debate.
5. And Then What?
Just a few days ago, the veep clash looked like the last debate before Election Day. But Trump tweeted Tuesday that he’s eager to debate Biden again, Oct. 15 in Miami, a clash that would be less than two weeks after the public announcement of his COVID-19 diagnosis. Biden said he’d rather skip if Trump still has COVID, and Miami’s Republican mayor also said the president should stay away. If it does happen, the debate could be staged outdoors.
Anywhere between 3 and 11 percent of voters remain undecided on the presidential election, citing reasons from competing values to political apathy to visceral disgust with the options they have been presented. And in swing states across the country, those last-minute decisions between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican President Donald Trump, or whether to vote at all, will shape the election. With that in mind, OZY interviewed a handful of undecideds, asking them about the issues and factors influencing their final weeks of deliberation.
Tonight’s Pence-Harris tussle will matter a great deal to Felix Millan, 64, a retired teacher in Oregon. “I have some concerns: age primarily for Biden. And I don't really know much about Harris other than a few things I've read, and I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with her being one step away from the presidency. I really don't know. I'm looking forward to her debate, learning more about her ... I'm ambivalent right now. I don't really know which way to turn.”
3. Trying Times
Linda Szymanski, of Ohio, is a lifelong Republican who has turned on Trump due to his behavior but won’t classify herself as a “liberal/socialist” either. Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis was a moving moment for her: “We all needed a timeout … even our president. I would wager President Trump has had some significant quiet time to do some reflecting on what’s truly important and perhaps it is not just votes but rather the message. Dignity, sincerity and humility convey far more strength than brashness and overt aggression. I think Joe Biden has exhibited a welcome dignity to this contentious, uncomfortable week. I welcome his dignity. It is refreshing.”
4. Biden Skeptic
Revelation Walker, 43, of Georgia, is strenuously anti-Trump but “I just wish the Democrats had not picked Biden,” she says. “Biden, to me, is like a freaking wall paint that’s drying — boring as shit. Kamala Harris, I believe, can light a fire, but I don’t think the males in America will give her a chance. I’m looking at all the people and they’re not really putting themselves out there. If you ask me who I am voting for right now, I’ll say Kamala Harris.”
We want to hear from you as we continue exploring the motivations of a critical set of voters: Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to chat.
Making the C-Suite the B-Suite
If you love compelling interviews you can’t get anywhere else, check out the new LinkedIn series, Leading in the B-Suite. Rhonda Morris, chief human resources officer at Chevron, and Adam Bryant, a former New York Times writer, interview leading Black entrepreneurs — including OZY CEO and co-founder Carlos Watson, Ariel Investments president and CEO Mellody Hobson and Robert L. Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television.
“There’s a saying in baseball,” says Scott Tranter, CEO of political data firm 0ptimus, “if you’re up five runs, not even a grand slam can tie it.” To Tranter, that’s what Trump is facing: Biden’s steadily advancing poll numbers mean that even if there were a Hillary Clinton–size polling error in every swing state, Biden would win … by a lot. Polling volatility has stepped up in recent days, along with some volatile news cycles, but it’s pretty much all in Biden’s favor.
The OZY/0ptimus forecast — which crunches polls, historic trends, demographic data and more to come up with percentage odds of victory up and down the ballot — now gives Biden an 82 percent chance of becoming the next president, earning 312 electoral votes, odds that have remained remarkably stable for weeks. It’s a sign that his unity message — best exemplified in his striking speech yesterday in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — is appealing to a nation in turmoil. Recent movement shows Biden becoming a strong favorite in Wisconsin and Michigan, while Trump remains within striking distance in must-win North Carolina and Florida to keep the race from being a total runaway.
A sneaky X-factor in our model that’s helping Trump: the economy. The most recent jobs report showed the recovery losing steam, but continued improvement in the unemployment rate helps Trump’s odds, meaning our forecast is more optimistic for him than some others. The economy remains the No. 1 issue for voters, and if they feel the comeback in their pockets, it will help the incumbent — regardless of the constant noise around Trump.
4. State to Watch
North Carolina, effectively tied at the presidential level for months now, is a must-win for Trump and the potential tipping-point state to give Democrats the Senate. Our model gives Democrat Cal Cunningham a 71 percent chance of victory in North Carolina … for now. This race was scrambled Friday when GOP Sen. Thom Tillis tested positive for COVID-19 and Cunningham admitted to exchanging amorous (even sappy) texts with PR strategist Arlene Guzman Todd — admissions quickly amplified by and attacked in Republican ads. With subsequent reports confirming a physical affair between Cunningham and Guzman Todd as recently as July — and rumors of another mistress — watch for Cunningham’s numbers to dip and this one to look more like the neck-and-neck presidential race. At least Dems can take solace in the fact that if Cunningham has to drop out, John Edwards is available.
Last week we asked our readers where to start in the campaign to #ResetAmerica and we got lots of great answers. To highlight a few: @treat2c suggests “encouraging the undecided to get the facts,” @Curious1Richard hopes to “bring everyone to the table so all voices are heard,” and @colabrownsweet encourages us to “embrace difference.” What do you think? At this tipping point for America, what steps should we take to #ResetAmerica? How can we improve our state of discourse? Share your thoughts to our tweet here.
1. YOLO Trump
You thought Cleveland-debate Trump was off the chain? Imagine him after personally body-slamming COVID-19. Now that he’s self-declared as “immune,” and if Trump’s health continues to improve as his doctors claim, there’s no chance he dons a mask again. The president is going to barnstorm America on the message that Biden would have died had he caught COVID, but Trump the Conqueror — with his pals Regeneron and remdesivir — tamed coronavirus as an inspiration to us all.
In the first presidential debate, Trump told his supporters to "to go into the polls and watch very carefully" during a riff about voter fraud. Poll watchers from both parties have long been permitted to observe, but Republicans are signaling a more aggressive approach this year. The Trump campaign is suing Philadelphia for not allowing its poll watchers into satellite election offices where mail ballots are being distributed and collected (Philly officials argue they aren’t polling places). And as GOP election attorney Ben Ginsberg points out, these poll watchers could wreak havoc by intimidating voters and issuing mass challenges of ballots on Election Day in Democratic precincts.
We’re running out of plot twists in the pulp novel that is 2020, but contact with extraterrestrials would be quite the kicker, don’t you think? Yes, there was a setback last month when a review of 10 million stars found no signs of alien technology. But October is all about surprises.
Need an extra push to get over the Wednesday hump? We have you covered with our weekly Spotify playlist, a mix of classics and up-and-comers to tickle your eardrums.