Inherent Vices: Are VP Debates Still Important?

Kaine and Pence

Like a first impression or a blue moon, the vice presidential debates only happen once (per election cycle). Despite its relative rarity, this year’s VP showdown was the least watched since 2000, begging the question: do these things even matter?

The debate Tuesday evening pitted Democratic VP nominee Tim Kaine, a senator from Virginia, against Republican Mike Pence, governor of Indiana. The two men sat around a table at Hofstra University with moderator CBS News reporter Elaine Quijano–a departure from the podium situation at the last presidential debate–and discussed issues ranging from immigration, to abortion, to race relations.

While physically absent, their respective running mates, potential-Presidents-to-be Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, tweeted their support throughout the night.



And while the conversations were pointed and delved deeper into policy plans, viewers seemed willing to sit this one out. In fact, the VP debate viewer numbers were the lowest since Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman went head to head 16 years ago. According to ratings organization Nielsen, around 37 million Americans watched the VP debate this year–less than half the record-shattering 84 million viewers for the Hillary-Trump debate this past week. As the New York Times put it, “no Trump, no bump.”

Why do people care so little about the VP candidates? Is it because they’re too boring? Too unrecognizable? Or is there a perception that these things just don’t really matter?

At the debate screening presented by the Common Sense Action (CSA) chapter at BU and sponsored by Fair Shot For All, a mere 15 people attended, and most left before the event concluded. Italian exchange student Andrea Di Fabio said he thought the whole debate spectacle was pointless and potentially harmful to those who watched.

“I think [the debate] is not useful for democracy, because the risk is that you vote for the candidate who has the better image, and you don’t pay attention to the content of their different programs…It’s becoming like show business,” Di Fabio said.

Though Di Fabio found it unimportant, CSA president Ryan Singh (CAS ’17), said he thought this debate was a crucial supplement to the presidential one.

“It’s important to see if everybody on the same team is on the same page and if they can justify and support each other. I don’t think the presidential debates give them enough time to sufficiently justify their positions or why they want to do something…if you don’t have these VP debates, then there’s going to be this information gap between how and why you want to do this policy and how effective these ideas will be,” Singh said.

Political historian and associate professor at BU, Thomas Whalen, agreed and added that in this election, the vice presidential debate is even more important than in previous years.

“I’m guessing too that probably a lot fewer people watched, and that’s kind of sad,” Whalen said. “Especially in Donald Trump’s case where he has promised to basically revolutionize the executive branch, essentially making the VP the chief operating officer for the federal government and beyond. What that means then is Mr. Pence would be running things on a day-to-day basis like a regular President would. So it’s good to know if you’re going to give power to someone–more power than Dick Cheney ever had–what are his views? How does he function?”

Whalen said that although important, the conflicting nature of the Twitter zeitgeist and election exhaustion makes the current debate format a little problematic.

Whereas debates in the past have served as places for candidates to share their platforms with the public, the internet has made it virtually impossible to miss where a candidate stands (or flip flops) on any given issue. Whalen said he thinks a town hall format would probably work better instead of the standard podium model which more closely resembled “two drunken uncles at Thanksgiving dinner.”

When all is said and done, civic-minded BU students like CSA vice president Kelsie Merrick (CAS ’18) said the debate accomplished its mission even if no one watched.

“I was glad that they talked about policies in this one, because you’re actually getting useful information out of the vice presidential candidates, but I also think because it was the vice presidents not as many people cared,” Merrick said. “It’s like ‘eh, they’re just the second string.'”

Read the full transcript of the 2016 vice presidential debate with fact-checking courtesy of NPR here

Feature images via Wikimedia Commons

About Carly Sitrin

I'm the senior editor of The Quad. Interests include: frogs, backpacks, satire, Adele, and the oxford comma. Tweet me your dreams @carlysitrin.

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