U.S. election: Debate coach rates the performances of Kamala Harris, Mike Pence
U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris battled over taxes, the environment and the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 in a debate that gave Americans a more policy-focused picture of where the two campaigns stand weeks before the election.
While Wednesday night’s debate was less fiery than that between U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, one expert says the event gave viewers the opportunity to get to know more about Harris.
Todd Graham, the director of debate at Southern Illinois University, told CTV News Channel that there weren’t any “standout moments” from the debate – except, perhaps, the fly that landed on Pence’s head — but said there were several “above average moments” for Harris.
“I thought she made just almost a perfect first impression both in how she presented herself, how she gave her arguments and then in the quality of the answers, just answering the question directly,” Graham said Thursday.
“I really thought that was her best debate… better than any of her Democratic primary debates.”
The 90-minute exchange was more civil than last week’s presidential debate, but Graham noted that Pence was quick to interrupt Harris on multiple occasions.
“I think there were some people that thought she should have been more bold to him when he was interrupting her, but I beg to differ. I thought she was just the right amount,” Graham said.
Graham explained that research indicates there is a difference between how women and men are perceived when they are speaking in public, especially in debate.
“Had she been more bold, people would have said, ‘Oh she’s just too aggressive’ and then use Trump’s lines like, ‘She’s a mean woman’,” Graham said. He added that viewers may have fed into Trump’s attacks on Harris as the incorrect and racist ‘Angry Black Woman’ trope had she stood up for herself more.
When interrupted by Pence, Harris would interject by saying “I’m speaking.” Graham said he thought this tactic worked at first, but lost its power the more Harris had to use it.
“What they don’t realize in these debates are they’re actually going to get interrupted 10, 12, 20 times so [have] 10-20 different things to say when you get interrupted because using the same one over and over becomes less effective,” Graham said.
In regards to Pence’s debate performance, Graham said his lack of honesty was a big downfall.
“If you package a lie in a nicer presentation, the stolen goods are still just as stolen. He needs to be more honest with the American people,” Graham said.
Pence, who leads the president’s coronavirus task force, acknowledged that the U.S. has had a challenging year, but vigorously defended the Trump administration’s overall response to a pandemic that has killed 210,000 Americans.
Pence also pushed back against the existence of systemic racism in police departments and at times avoided entire questions asked by the debate moderator, USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page.
Graham said Pence was avoiding questions so often during the debate that it actually started to bother him. He said Pence got better as the debate continued, but was always one question behind because of his dodging.
“One of his strengths frankly, is the pro-life movement, and he didn’t answer that question until the next topic came up, because he was one topic behind and never answering the question. I thought that was poor but worse than that was just the fact that he was not being honest,” Graham said.
Pence’s tactic of avoiding questions drew various forms of non-verbal communication from Harris including shaking her head and giving him the side eye.
Graham said he thought this was effective on her part.
“I loved her facial expressions. I thought they were complex — she showed anger at the right moments, frustration at the right moments, and she smiled a lot and looked at the camera,” he explained.
However, Graham says he thought the moderating of the debate was “terrible.”
“Even though these two candidates were less volatile, still the moderator has to do simple things like make sure they answer the question, make sure that if they’re lying that you ask follow ups,” he said, adding that Page did not do that.
“She didn’t control the debate and then she let Mike Pence sort of talk over Kamala Harris all the time. I thought she was awful.”