What Was the Point of the 2016 VP Debate?

Vice presidential debates often have many voters asking what’s the point. This is certainly a valid question – after all, neither VP candidate was elected by the people in their parties, unlike the actual presidential nominees themselves. Historically speaking, VP debates haven’t done much to affect the outcome of any election, perhaps because of their typically low ratings. While the first presidential debate of 2016 garnered an impressive 84.2 million viewers, the largest for any such debate in history, the vice presidential debate saw its lowest numbers since 2000. With a viewership of only 37.2 million, this VP debate had many questioning its relevance in the in the current election.

However, while the rest of America might have found such an encounter to be pointless, both parties sent their respective VP nominees into the debate with a goal. Tim Kaine’s job was to reiterate his party’s stance on various issues, defend Clinton, but most importantly attack Trump for every questionable or offensive claim he has made over the last year (no easy task by any means). For the most part, this falls in line with the typical expectations for any VP nominee; they are often assumed to play the role of the “attack dog.” Mike Pence, on the other hand, had a more arduous task. Given that his party’s nominee has been especially prone to racist, sexist, and generally offensive outbursts, the Trump campaign would have needed Pence to remain on the defensive for much of the debate. While it is out of the ordinary for the non-incumbent party to be so defensive, given the extenuating circumstances of this year’s election, it certainly isn’t much of a surprise.

However, several media pundits have implied that Pence’s ulterior motive was actually to lay the groundwork for a potential bid of his own in 2020. Of course, this is just speculation for the most part. There isn’t any veritable proof other than the clues picked up from his conduct during the debate. While it would pose a fascinating quandary for the Trump campaign, it is imperative that we take this tidbit with a grain of salt.

Nevertheless, while both parties sent in their respective VP’s with some agenda for this debate, it isn’t especially clear how effective either Pence or Kaine were in achieving their given goals. The answer to this question is contingent upon how each of their performances were perceived, and particularly in Pence’s case, what one believes his motives to be.

Kaine took the opportunity to elaborate upon some of Clinton’s policy positions, particularly immigration and taxes. However, this portion of the debate didn’t really capture much attention. The most striking characteristic of his rhetoric were his persistent attacks on the GOP nominee, especially since most of his allegations were simply restatements of Trump’s most incendiary remarks. Not only did this emphasise the notion that Trump is his own worst enemy, but allowed Kaine to barrage Pence without having to use any insults of his own.

Drawing focus to this explosive content was definitely Kaine’s strong suit in the debate. However, it was slightly limited in effect as Pence never took the bait, unlike his running mate. Pence ended up ignoring or denying most of these accusations, allowing no room for further elaboration or further discussion. It never gained the required momentum to be truly devastating to the Trump campaign. Moreover, Kaine’s own demeanor during the debate held back his message. He proved to be too much of an ‘attack dog,’ interrupting Pence a total of 72 times. Not only did this put him in an almost antagonistic light, but ironically embodied the GOP presidential candidate himself, who is undoubtedly an interrupter.

As a result, Kaine seemed somewhat unsophisticated in comparison to his republican counterpart. Pence was able to present a calm, composed exterior throughout the entire debate. In fact, many regarded his behaviour as more presidential than vice-presidential, giving rise to the rumors that Pence might be considering a future run. Furthermore, the stylistic juxtaposition between the two men is why numerous mainstream media outlets awarded Pence a marginal victory over Kaine. However, the most intriguing feature of Pence’s debate strategy was the way in which he dealt with all things Trump-related. He disregarded all of Kaine’s accusations and barely referred to Trump at all otherwise. Moreover, he actually disagreed with Trump on a policy issue concerning Syria, clearly highlighting the deep disconnect between the two men.

Pence’s argument was rhetorically and stylistically polished. However ultimately it wasn’t much of an argument for Trump, but rather for the GOP elite – which of course, includes himself. Evaluating his performance in this debate is dependent on what one believes his motives were. If he was sincerely trying to bolster the Trump campaign, he definitely fell short. But if his intention was to set the groundwork for a potential run in 2020 in order to revitalise the crumbling GOP, Pence’s performance would have been especially adept and might even carve out the course of conservative politics for the next few years.

Over the course of the debate, both parties desperately needed their vice presidential candidates to convey a strong message to viewers, a task they accomplished to varying degrees. However, perhaps it doesn’t matter. The VP nominees are reflections of the campaigns they are running, but at the end of the day, they aren’t at the top of the ticket. In an election with this much thrill and turmoil, it’s safe to say that very few people are paying close attention to Tim Kaine and Mike Pence.

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