Carl Bialik

Tonight’s Debate Should Matter

Tonight is clearly the junior-varsity event of the four general-election debates. Vice presidential debates that don’t include Sarah Palin get far smaller television audiences than presidential debates do. As Harry just pointed out, vice presidential debates don’t seem to move the polls. In fact, vice presidents rarely affect election outcomes beyond their home states — and neither Pence nor Kaine is from one of the five states most likely to provide the decisive Electoral College vote. But here’s a different question: Should voters care about tonight’s debate? Among the reasons they probably should: According to our forecast, there’s a 15 percent chance that the Senate will be split 50-50 next year, in which case the vice president — presumably one of tonight’s two debaters on the winning ticket in November — will give his party control and often cast deciding votes. There’s also a chance that whoever becomes vice president will become president in the next four years. There isn’t a big chance: Trump and Clinton are older than the typical presidential candidates in history, but Americans their age are expected on average to live well beyond the next eight years. But it’s not impossible, either: Eight of 47 U.S. vice presidents became president after the sitting president died. Another, Gerald Ford, replaced Richard Nixon as president after Nixon’s resignation. Even if the next president serves the full four-year term, the next vice president likely will have significant power: No. 2’s have taken on more duties in recent decades than they used to. Trump, in particular, would be one of the presidents with the least governing experience in history, which could keep Pence very busy.
Harry Enten

Do VP Debates Matter?

If you’re following a live blog on the night of a vice presidential debate, then you’re probably a political junkie. Or, maybe you’re just interested in what Kaine and Pence have to say. But if you’re expecting tonight’s debate to be of great import in terms of who wins the presidency, you’re likely to be disappointed. CNN’s hype notwithstanding …
There’s no evidence that vice presidential debates have a meaningful effect on the horse race. (As I mentioned on the podcast, I wrote about this in a college term paper.) You can see this in the chart below, which shows the change in the national polling average from just before to just after vice presidential debates since 1984 and the Democrat’s margin in “who won the debate?” polls. (We’re excluding 1996 because the vice presidential debate came right after the first presidential debate, making it hard to distinguish the latter’s effect from the former.)
Clearly, there is no relationship. If anything, the relationship is negative. Of course, that isn’t to suggest that a vice presidential nominee should go out and throw the debate. Rather, it’s a strong sign that a good performance just really doesn’t matter. Case in point: Remember when Democrat Lloyd Bentsen unleashed his famous “you’re no Jack Kennedy” line on Republican Dan Quayle? Voters said Bentsen won that debate by a record 26-percentage-point margin. But it was Quayle’s running mate, George H.W. Bush, who gained in the polls after the debate, continuing a longer-term trend of his picking up support after the Republican convention.
Clare Malone


Welcome to our live blog of 2016’s one-and-only vice presidential debate! While most Americans have known the top of each party’s ticket for decades, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s running mates are lesser stars in the pop culture/political universe. Trump’s VP candidate, Mike Pence, is the governor of Indiana, but when he was selected this summer, his approval rating in the state was at only 40 percent. Tim Kaine is a U.S. senator and former governor from Virginia, and is perhaps most nationally notable for being a favorite of Democrat VP shortlists for nearly a decade. The two will finally have a bright-lights moment tonight on the debate stage — they’ve spent most of their campaigns playing professional second fiddle, cheerleader, and in Pence’s case, Trump-apologist-in-chief. So what to expect this evening? Perhaps more substantive policy debate, since neither Kaine nor Pence has as much of a checkered past to mud-sling over as Clinton and Trump do. Although, surely the two will do some proxy fighting on behalf of their running mates. The race has swung to Clinton’s advantage in recent days, following her debate performance last week. But we should be clear: It’s unlikely that tonight’s VP matchup will do much to move the polls. (Harry will have more on this in a moment.) All these two are aiming for is not to screw up. And just a reminder: The one with the white hair is Pence, and the one with the notable eyebrows is Kaine. Happy watching! We’ll be here all night with analysis and context.

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