If History Is a Guide, the Vice Presidential Debate Won't Swing the Election 

click to enlarge Work crews transform Longwood University’s basketball gym in Willett Hall in Farmville for Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate. The special set is used at all of the 2016 presidential debates.

Bill Bartel

Work crews transform Longwood University’s basketball gym in Willett Hall in Farmville for Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate. The special set is used at all of the 2016 presidential debates.

When Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence face off at Longwood University in Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate, it won’t be Virginia’s first rodeo when it comes to such national forums.

But will the 90-minute debate in Farmville have any effect on this year’s election?

“I don’t think it’s going to go down in history as the turning point in this campaign,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor and longtime campaign analyst.

“Vice presidential debates have never – not even one time – determined the results of a presidential election. I think you can be pretty well assured of that,” said Sabato, who has written several books on national elections.

Kaine, a U.S. senator and former Virginia governor, and Pence, Indiana’s governor and a former congressman, are experienced debaters.

“They’re going to be tough on one another … but both of them are, in person at least, nice guys,” Sabato said.

Kaine has been preparing for weeks, noting during a Sept. 9 stop in Norfolk that he was using any spare time to go over briefing books. He predicted the debate will be less about himself or Pence and more about their running mates.

“My job really is to make the case why Hillary Clinton would be a great president,” Kaine said. “He’s got to make the case for what he thinks Donald Trump would do.”

Pence is set to make campaign stops in Virginia just before and after the debate. He’ll be in Hanover County for a rally tonight and in Harrisonburg on Wednesday morning, according to the campaign’s website.

While the 9 p.m. debate will be carried live on several television networks, Sabato said the viewership should be significantly smaller than last week’s clash between Clinton and Trump.

“Who watches VP debates? The hard partisans. Almost everybody watching that already knows for whom they’re voting,” he said.

Most of Longwood’s students hadn’t been born the last time Virginia hosted a national election forum.

In October 1992, then-President George H.W. Bush, Democratic challenger Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot shared a stage at the University of Richmond.

An audience of undecided voters asked them questions, and it’s often remembered for Bush glancing at his watch on camera. It gave the impression to many television viewers that he wanted it to end soon. Clinton, already ahead in polls, appeared more at ease interacting with the audience.

Sabato, who was in attendance, said nobody in the room noticed Bush checking the time, but it was obvious to many TV viewers.

“It was bad luck,” Sabato said. But it’s also why Sabato stopped attending debates and watches them – like most Americans – on television.

Virginia’s other presidential debate in modern times was in September 1976 and touched on candidates’ reactions to corruption and moral behavior. However, their remarks seem tame compared with this year’s high-octane exchanges between Trump and Clinton.

When the College of William & Mary hosted a debate between then-President Gerald Ford, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter, it was the first presidential election after President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation due to allegations of abuse of power and corruption.

Nixon had appointed Ford, a Michigan congressman, his vice president after his elected running mate, Spiro Agnew, resigned in a separate corruption scandal.

In the William & Mary debate, Ford defended his decision to pardon Nixon for any crimes committed while he was chief executive. Ford also lamented that “we have seen on Capitol Hill, in the Congress, a great many allegations of wrongdoing, of alleged immorality.” He didn’t name names.

Meanwhile, Carter was called out for giving a wide-ranging interview to Playboy magazine, where he said among other things, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

Carter told the debate audience: “I would not have given that interview had I to do it over again. If I should ever decide in the future to discuss my deep Christian beliefs and condemnation and sinfulness, I’ll use another forum besides Playboy.”


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