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Do Vice Presidential Debates Matter?

Not usually—but this one might.

By Jared Keller


Mike Pence (left) and Tim Kaine. (Photo: Mandel Ngan, Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week’s presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clintondrew the highest television ratings in the United States’ history, with over 80 million Americans tuning in to watch the two candidates duke it out over everything from childcare to criminal justice to international trade. But, despite that record viewership, don’t expect anyone to care about today’s vice presidential debate between Indiana Governor Mike Pence and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine: The VP debates generally attract far fewer viewers than their executive counterparts.

This, despite the fact that the vice presidency is the second-highest elected position in the federal government, a heartbeat from the presidency. While it’s said that the chief of staff tends to wield more clout in the West Wing, choosing a vice president is still the second-most important task for voters come Election Day — so we should probably listen to what these two have to say.

But, historically, voters don’t seem to care much: Vice presidential debates rarely have a significant impact on voter behavior. According to a Gallup analysis of polling data on presidential campaigns between 1976 and 2008, debates rarely shifted voter support for a Republican or Democratic vice presidential candidate by more than a percentage point or two. “Voters are understandably more focused on the top of ticket, [and] debates themselves rarely influence voters’ pre-existing views,” explained Gallup’s Andrew Dugan in 2012. “The vice presidential debate also occurs late in the campaign cycle — as the presidential debates do, typically in late September or early October — after many voters have firmly settled on which candidate to support.”

Choosing a vice president is still the second-most important task for voters come Election Day.

A 2010 study published in Presidential Study Quarterlyconfirms this trend. Using National Election Survey data between 1968 and 2008, researchers at the University of California–Irvine concluded that a VP candidate has a less than 1 percent net impact on a voter’s decision to cross party lines. Even the much-hyped debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin in 2008 was “slightly” lower than the historical average, registering around one-half of a percentage point. “Only in 1972 was more than 1% of the final vote affected by conflicted vice presidential and presidential preferences,” the authors wrote.

Of course, it’s not just the VPs; it’s also the debate format itself. A growing body of political science research suggests that presidential debates don’t really matter. Research on presidential elections between 1972 and 2008 found that, with the exception of Jimmy Carter’s rocky performance in the 1976 election, there’s minimal evidence to suggest presidential debates ever function as an electoral game-changer. “New information is not likely to change many minds,” John Sides observed in TheWashington Monthly in 2012. “Moreover, the debates tend to attract viewers who have an abiding interest in politics and are mostly party loyalists. Instead of the debates affecting who they will vote for, their party loyalty affects who they believe won the debates.”

But in the age of the imperial executive, the lack of attention paid to the vice presidential contest is a bit of a problem. As political science professors Kyle Kopko and Christopher Devinenote in the Conversation, the vice presidency has taken on more importance within the executive branch in recent years. “[Dick] Cheney played a key role in shaping Bush administration policy on matters ranging from energy to terrorism and the Iraq War,” they write, “[and] Biden was a key adviser on foreign policy matters including the war in Afghanistan and the Osama bin Laden raid, [serving] as the administration’s liaison to Congress on domestic matters.” The back-up spot in the presidential line of succession outlined under the Twenty-Fifth Amendment is no longer “worth a bucket of warm spit,” as Franklin Roosevelt’s veep John Nance Garner quipped in 1932.

This may be especially true in our current election. Trump, in his search for a running mate, at one point reportedly approached former primary opponent John Kasich with an unusual proposition: According to the New York TimesMagazine, Donald Trump Jr. claimed his father’s veep “would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy” while Trump himself would focus on “making America great again.” While research in the American Political Science Reviewconfirms that presidential nominees since 1940 have tended to choose their running mates based on electoral geography — say, the size of the VP’s state, or the veep’s ability to balance the age of the ticket — this may not be the case with the Pence pick, governor of a state where Trump solidly leads Clinton. Is Trump actually looking for someone who will handle all that pesky ���governing” and whatnot? That’s certainly the way it seems.

Either way, debates matter as a moment for the electorate (and its ostensible advocates in the media) to interrogate those who aspire to the highest elected offices in the land, even if they rarely change the electoral calculus of the average voter. And in this already-exceptional election cycle, the vice presidency matters far, far more than a bucket of warm spit.