Even before Wednesday night’s slow-boil of a vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City, the re-election bid of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence was in trouble with the one demographic on which elections hinge: women.
Then, with condescension and contempt, Pence sat with Sen. Kamala Harris of California, the first woman of color to be on a major presidential ticket, and lectured and side-stepped. When moderator Susan Page of USA Today declared that the debate would be civil, Pence visibly smirked. He knew better.
“Sen. Harris, it’s a privilege to be on this stage with you,” Pence said as the evening started. He later praised her history-making candidacy and thanked her for her public service. It was a veneer of respect that he didn’t necessarily practice during the debate. Repeatedly, he refused to heed time limits or even answer the question being asked. (To be sure, dodging questions was the order of the evening for Harris, too.) Although far short of the acrimony of last week’s debate, it was a steady reminder that the Trump campaign recognizes it is on the ropes and in desperate need of a reboot.
When asked if Pence had spoken with Trump about plans for a transfer of presidential power as the President was treated for COVID-19, Pence was utterly evasive. Pence steadfastly refused to engage and instead scolded Harris — without evidence — for undermining public confidence in science after she expressing skepticism about Trump’s push to rush a COVID-19 into production. “It is unacceptable,” Pence said. When asked about how Trump’s healthcare plan would address individuals with pre-existing conditions, Pence demanded Harris answer an unasked question about packing the Supreme Court.
Evasion is an art: When Pence was asked if voters have a right to know more details about presidential health records, Pence praised Harris’ groundbreaking nomination. So is a pivot: Harris used the same question to raise questions about Trump’s taxes, which are still a mystery because he has broken all post-Watergate norms of transparency. Anything known about Trump’s finances are thanks to New York Times’ reporting.
That’s not to say Harris was a passive participant in the practice of politics. When she was asked about her discussions with Vice President Joe Biden about presidential power, she outlined her own ceiling-shattering biography. When Page tried to tell Harris to wrap up, Harris simply demanded equal time: “he interrupted, and I’d like to finish,” Harris said.
In terms of style, Harris gave as good as she got. She has mastered the side-eye as much as Pence has control of his dismissive shake of the head. Her “Mamala” identity had its moment.
Later, when asked about the death of Breonna Taylor, she hit back at Pence for implying that she didn’t trust the U.S. justice system. “I will not sit here and be lectured by the Vice President about what it means to enforce the laws of our country,” Harris shot back.
When Harris criticized Trump’s tax cuts, Pence shook his head and rolled his eyes. When asked about abortion rights, Pence used his time to criticize Harris’ conduct on the Senate Judiciary Committee and to talk about an assassination in January of an Iranian general.
“Mr. Vice President, I am speaking. I am speaking,” Harris said as Pence interrupted her answer on Biden’s tax plan. “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can have a conversation.”
The evening was nothing approaching the chaos that unfolded a week earlier when Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden, and the former Vice President responded with name-calling in what was a generally panned evening. It would have taken a circus tent of animals crashing into the socially distanced audience in Utah to create anything approaching that threshold.
Each candidate had a clear task at the fore of mind. Pence was performing for an audience of one, who was watching from the White House as he recovers from COVID-19. Hence the ad hominem attack against the media when challenged about Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy at last week’s debate. Harris, by contrast, was there to cast her candidacy as a safety blanket for voters worried about Biden’s age and what comes next for Democrats.
As the debate entered its second hour, Pence seemed determined to further erode the GOP ticket’s standing with women by embracing limits on abortion rights. Four-in-five women in the country support abortion rights, according to Gallup’s polling. The surveys find 53% of women identify themselves as “pro-choice” as opposed to 41% of women who call themselves “pro-life.” However, given an opportunity to say abortion should be outlawed if an Amy Coney Barrett-supported Supreme Court majority overturns Roe v. Wade, Pence dodged.
In 2016, Trump lost women by 13 percentage points, according to exit polls. He has done little to bring them back into the fold. Trump’s unfavorable rating with women has grown from 50% in January of 2017 to 57% last month. The gender gap is staggering. Strategists from both parties are bracing for that number to climb to more than 20 points, absent a major change in a sizable bloc of voters who reliably show up.
Wednesday evening’s debate did little to change that. In a dismissive tone, thrice Pence used a variation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous quote that Harris is entitled to her own opinion but not her own facts. That’s not a good way to win over women who — as they did in 2018 — tend to decide the results on Election Day.