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Do Vice Presidential debates matter?

The University of Utah's Kingsbury Hall will play host to the only Vice Presidential Debate of 2020. Photo University of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY – As Vice President Mike Pence and California Senator Kamala Harris get ready to debate at the University of Utah on Wednesday, some people wonder whether vice presidential debates matter. 

BYU Political Science Professor Richard Davis believes this one might matter a lot. 

“There is the possibility that person will become the president and, in this case, that’s probably even a potentially stronger possibility since we have two of the oldest candidates ever vying for the presidency,” Davis says. 

But Davis says voters typically only look for a few things. 

“Typically, people do not vote for a vice president, they vote for a president,” Davis says. “[But the vice presidential nominee] also speaks to the presidential candidate. Who have they chosen, and what is that person like? It’s sort of a judgement on what the presidential candidate’s decision making and emphasis is,” Davis says.   

Vice Presidential debates have produced some memorable moments in the past.

When and where to watch the upcoming Utah political debates

Third-party candidate Vice Admiral James Stockdale had an existential moment on the debate stage in 1992 when he asked, “Who am I? Why am I here?” 

Perhaps the most famous smackdown in Vice Presidential debate history came in 1988 when Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) took issue with Senator Dan Quayle’s (R-Indiana) constant references to President John F. Kennedy. 

“I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” Bentsen said. 

However, both those memorable moments did not translate into a political victory for either Bentsen or Stockdale.

One thing that can work to a candidate’s advantage, Davis believes, is low expectations, as they did Governor Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) in 2008. 

“When they are low for a candidate, that’s really quite good for the candidate. They don’t have to meet a high bar to be praised for their performance,” Davis said. “Actually, the sense was after the debate that she came out okay.”