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VP Debates Usually Don’t Matter. But We’re Way Past Usual.

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): President Trump may still not be out of the woods with his coronavirus diagnosis — he is back at the White House now after three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and still receiving treatment — but the vice presidential debate is moving ahead as planned.

There are a number of new precautions in place for the debate, too, given the renewed focus on the coronavirus, including a hotly disputed plexiglass barrier to separate the candidates and no handshakes upon arrival.

We have less of an idea this time around about which topics Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris will debate, but without a doubt the coronavirus will be front and center — in fact, it might be hard for other topics to break through in the 90 minutes they have.

So let’s start there.

We know from our poll with Ipsos before the last presidential debate that the coronavirus is the most important issue to voters here in 2020, and that most voters think Biden is better on the issue.

On COVID-19, almost everyone prefers Biden

Share of people who named each issue as the most important one facing the U.S., and whether they think Trump or Biden would handle that issue better, according to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll

Who’s better on the issue…
issue share TRUMP biden
COVID-19 31.7% 19.5%
The economy 21.6 79.1
Health care 7.9 22.0
Racial inequality 7.4 8.4
Climate change 5.2 2.6
Violent crime 4.8 79.3
The Supreme Court 4.5 50.7
Economic inequality 3.0 15.1
Immigration 2.8 70.1
Education 2.6 52.1
Abortion 2.3 96.0
Gun policy 1.9 66.9
Other 1.6 55.1

Respondents who didn’t name a top issue are not shown.

Data comes from polling done by Ipsos for FiveThirtyEight, using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, a probability-based online panel that is recruited to be representative of the U.S. population. The poll was conducted Sept. 21-28 among a general population sample of adults, with 3,133 respondents and a margin of error of +/- 1.9 percentage points.

How do you see the conversation around the coronavirus playing out tonight? What will be Harris’s stance? Pence’s? This will be the issue tonight, right?

meredithconroy (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University, San Bernardino, and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Yeah, Sarah, there’s little doubt that coronavirus will be the issue tonight. After months of Trump trying to downplay the virus, Pence will be forced to grapple with it more directly, given the president’s recent diagnosis.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I would be shocked if the debate doesn’t kick off with the coronavirus and spend a substantial amount of time on it. And I am really curious to see whether the share of Americans who say that the coronavirus is the most important issue to them rises in our Ipsos poll. I haven’t seen the new data yet, but it will be available to you, dear reader, on the live blog tonight!

Specifically, I’m curious to see whether the share of voters who back Trump and prioritize the coronavirus rises. There was a big partisan split on the issue last time, with Democrats far more likely to say it was their top issue.

meredithconroy: That will be interesting to see. I think it’s possible it is still below the economy for Republicans in the poll, though. The administration hasn’t really changed its tune on the severity of the virus, despite the president’s diagnosis, right? In fact, you could argue their messaging is even more reckless?

nrakich: Right — in fact, the president has downplayed the severity of the virus in the last couple days, tweeting “don’t be afraid of Covid” and taking off his mask when he returned to the White House.

sarah: Does Pence lean into that messaging, then?

nrakich: I kind of think he will try to walk it back. Pence is kind of the ticket’s “what the president meant to say was …” ambassador.

meredithconroy: Right. And Pence comes at this from a somewhat different position than Trump — he is charged with leading the White House Coronavirus Task Force. I’m not sure that means he echoes guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or corrects his boss’s recent tweets and messages, though.

In fact, perhaps foreshadowing what to expect, Pence’s spokesperson, Katie Miller, already chided Harris’s camp for asking for more precautions at the debate, saying, “If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it.”

nrakich: A more interesting question might be, how hard does Harris attack Trump for this? She has a lot of material to work with (e.g., not wearing a mask, not taking the proper precautions to prevent spread among White House staffers), but will it come off in bad taste?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Doesn’t seem too hard for Harris to say, “I wish the president good health,” but then harp on his failures in dealing with the virus.

And I don’t expect Pence to walk back a ton of what Trump has said or done. The kind of non-Trump Republican position on the coronavirus has been: “We can’t shut down the country in fear of this virus, kids need to go to school, our economy can’t be closed,” and I assume Pence will say versions of that throughout the debate. It’s a more polite version of what Trump says, but not necessarily all that different.

meredithconroy: Yeah. I think you’re right, Perry.

nrakich: I don’t know about that, Perry. The polls suggest people are really turned off by Trump’s blasé attitude toward the virus.

I think Pence will want to counter the perception that Trump isn’t taking it seriously — which by definition I think involves telling people to, well, “worry about Covid” (though of course not in those exact words).

meredithconroy: I think it’s possible they’re past that now, Nathaniel, given that Trump is doubling down on downplaying the seriousness of the virus.

sarah: If anything, Pence might want to actively pivot away from conversation on the coronavirus as much as he can, because this is something Trump has consistently gotten poor marks on:

nrakich: That would kind of be the strategy we saw at the Republican National Convention? Try to change the subject to something like the pre-pandemic roaring economy or democratic socialism. It’s harder to do in a debate, though.

meredithconroy: Yes. I think Harris would want to keep the focus on the coronavirus and those most affected by it. Plus, she’s a good messenger for that. More women than men are facing job losses, and Black communities account for a disproportionate number of deaths.

sarah: But if you’re Pence, maybe pivot to something like talk around an upcoming vaccine, or the upcoming Supreme Court nomination?

meredithconroy: Speaking of messengers … Pence is a great spokesperson for the SCOTUS nomination, as a religious liberty conservative.

perry: A debate with a lot of focus on COVID-19 will be bad for Trump-Pence. So I would assume the moderator, to show balance, will harp on some subject that is designed to make Harris look bad. My assumption is this will be about abolishing/defunding the police. Also, Biden kind of non-answered on abolishing the filibuster and adding seats to the Supreme Court in the last debate, so I would assume that is a subject that Harris will be pushed on, too.

sarah: That’s a good point, Perry. And I can see how a debate around the Supreme Court could possibly back Harris into a corner, too, if Pence is adamant about the GOP’s timeline to confirm Amy Coney Barrett before the election, which might push Harris into saying something about increasing the number of justices on the court.

nrakich: Harris is also on the Senate Judiciary Committee and was a big Brett Kavanaugh opponent. Pence may try to accuse her of obstructing Republican-appointed judges out of hand.

But again, the polls are not on Republicans’ side here. Most Americans think the Senate should wait until after the election to confirm a replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

perry: Only 32 percent of Americans support adding justices to the Supreme Court, compared to 54 percent opposed, in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll. At the same time, a 6-3 court might strike down Biden’s entire legislative agenda. So I would assume Harris wants to stay vague on that issue, as Biden has.

nrakich: Why do you think they are being coy on that, Perry? I don’t really get it.

Even in a dream Democratic scenario, there won’t be enough votes in the Senate to pack the court anyway. And as Perry said, polling shows most people are opposed to it. So saying “we oppose court packing” seems like the politically expedient answer.

perry: Because I think a 6-3 court will be open to striking down any Democratic legislation even on the flimsiest of grounds, so I think they have to keep the idea open.

nrakich: That’s fair. And I don’t think court packing is high on voters’ radar. I just thought it was a weird unforced error by Biden to dodge the question at the last debate.

perry: The Democrats’ actual position is probably closer to: “A Supreme Court that strikes down Obamacare, Roe v. Wade and the Voting Rights Act with Barrett and Gorsuch in the majority is illegitimate, in our view, and we would take action to address that.” I just don’t know if Harris can say that right now.

sarah: I’m surprised either candidate got in anything substantive in the last debate with all the interruptions. But speaking of debates … even though we’re pretty skeptical that debates move the needle all that much (although we did see a slight uptick for Biden following the first debate), do you think this debate might have more of an effect just given the uncertainty around the last two debates actually happening?

Trump has said he plans to debate next week, but is it possible the debate commission won’t let him because of his diagnosis?

nrakich: I don’t see next week’s debate happening as planned. If Trump insists on going, I don’t think Biden will go.

I do think that makes today’s debate more important than a vice-presidential debate usually is (which is not very important).

Also, I think Trump’s diagnosis has highlighted, erm, shall I say, the fragility of both presidential candidates, which might have voters taking a closer look at their No. 2s.

perry: I am really skeptical the debate commission stops the sitting president from debating. The people in charge of these debates didn’t force his staff to wear masks or stop him from interrupting every 10 seconds in the last debate.

sarah: But at the very least, they’ll make him take a COVID-19 test and if it comes back positive … I think they’d have to stop him, or at least that’s what their guidelines seem to suggest.

perry: I don’t think they have the power to make the sitting president take a COVID-19 test and reveal the results. I might be wrong. But this is a really interesting test of power.

And I think Trump will not back down.

meredithconroy: I don’t want to speculate, but depending on Trump’s health, he may hope they do cancel the debate. We’ll just have to wait and see.

But another reason this debate might be more important than a typical VP debate is simply that more people are paying attention right now, right?

sarah: Or more seriously considering who is in the No. 2 role?

nrakich: Not sure about that, Meredith. The TV ratings for the first debate were down from 2016, just like they were for the conventions. (Insert obligatory caveat about how TV ratings are falling across the board and it’s possible people just switched from watching the debate on TV to streaming it online.)

perry: So focusing on this debate, I actually think this debate matters electorally. Some of these polls have Trump in the low 40s, down by double digits. I assume that means some GOP-leaning voters are undecided right now. So if Pence kind of reminds those people that they really hate the Democrats, even if they aren’t that into Trump, that is helpful for the GOP side.

meredithconroy: Yeah, I think that’s a possibility, Perry. I think a lot of people — maybe more moderate people or the less politically engaged — came away from that first debate saying “Wow that was chaos, and American politics is a mess,” but not necessarily attributing the chaos to the instigator (Trump). If Pence can assuage those feelings, I think people on the fence might, for now, stay on the fence instead of deciding to stay home or vote for Biden.

sarah: Trump’s approval rating has slowly been ticking back up, too, even though his standing in the national polls hasn’t improved

How do you take into account Trump’s approval rating when thinking about his standing in the horse race? Is this some of the upside Pence could possibly tap into tonight?

nrakich: We at FiveThirtyEight are skeptical about weighting polls by partisanship, but it’s at least possible there’s a touch of nonresponse bias (i.e., demoralized Republicans don’t want to take polls right now) in the polls immediately following the first debate.

So a more, er, conventional performance by Pence could correct that.

But I wouldn’t read too much into Trump’s approval rating. We’re less than a month until the election; head-to-head polls have fully come into their predictive power. Plus, it’s not like Trump’s approval rating has improved to 50 percent or even 45 percent. It’s at 43 percent — right around where it’s been for most of his term.

sarah: OK, to wrap. Tonight we see the other half of the ticket. What case does Harris need to make for Biden-Harris? And what case does Pence need to make for Trump-Pence?

perry: Biden is winning. Harris’s job is to do no harm. To me, Pence can’t fully explain away Trump’s handling of COVID-19. So he needs to hammer other issues (the police, the Supreme Court, taxes) where Republicans are stronger.

nrakich: I don’t think voters decide who to vote for based on the bottom half of the ticket. So I think Pence and Harris need to successfully argue that their running mates are the best choice for the country.

But voters already know Trump and Biden so well — very, very few have no opinion of them in polls — that I’m not sure the candidates can say anything to change their minds. Honestly, maybe what Pence needs to do is create some highly newsworthy moment that distracts from what is frankly a terrible news cycle right now for Trump.

meredithconroy: Ha! Interesting theory, Nathaniel. But has Pence ever driven the news cycle?

I anticipate that Pence will use the debate to tie Harris to the “far/radical left,” like Trump attempted to do to Biden in the debate last week. And I am going to risk being very wrong and speculate that Pence also doubles down on Trump’s recent messages around the coronavirus and tries to play down its seriousness.

nrakich: “But has Pence ever driven the news cycle?” –> No.

And that’s the ballgame.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Meredith Conroy is an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and co-author of “Who Runs? The Masculine Advantage in Candidate Emergence.”