World·Analysis

Why Kamala Harris wants a plexiglass barrier at tonight's U.S. vice-presidential debate

U.S. vice-presidential debate rarely affect votes. But they can be informative. Tonight's showdown between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence will reveal contrasting attitudes to the COVID-19 pandemic. It's why Harris has demanded that protective glass be placed between her and Pence.

Democrats demanded safety measures that will make the virus impossible to ignore during debate

Staff for the Commission on Presidential Debates clean freshly installed protective plexiglass panels, demanded by Democrats before tonight's vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Now that the global pandemic has been thrust back onto centre stage of the American presidential election, Democrats intend to keep the focus there.

Literally.

The party has requested that a plexiglass barrier be erected on stage between Democrat Kamala Harris and Republican Mike Pence when the vice-presidential candidates debate Wednesday night.

Republican staff eye-rolled at the idea: "If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it," Pence spokesperson Katie Miller was quoted telling Politico.

There are two good reasons why Democrats want that glass there. And why Republicans aren't as keen.

For starters, there's epidemiological safety.

The novel coronavirus has ripped through the administration's ranks, adding more White House staffers to the list on a daily basis and fraying nerves across Washington.

The virus has struck both the above-quoted staffer Katie Miller, and, in the last few days, her husband, White House aide and immigration hardliner Stephen Miller.  

WATCH / Coronavirus 'front and centre' at U.S. vice-presidential debate, expert says:

Coronavirus 'front and centre' at U.S. vice-presidential debate, expert says

World

2 months agoVideo
6:56
While the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus will be an important topic at the U.S. vice-presidential debate, Elaine Kamarck from the Brookings Institution says viewers will also be judging how Mike Pence and Kamala Harris would handle the presidency should they be required to step in. 6:56

Just last week Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was standing on a debate stage with President Donald Trump, shortly before Trump announced he'd contracted the illness.

White House senior advisor Stephen Miller, seen here in July, on Tuesday became the latest staffer to publicly reveal he had COVID-19. ( Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Biden called his opponent's behaviour irresponsible. After the debate, he told an NBC town hall how he noticed the president's entourage gathered indoors without masks.

"It was a little disconcerting to look out and see that, his whole section, no one had masks on," Biden said.

"Look, anybody who contracts the virus by essentially saying, 'Masks don't matter. Social distancing doesn't matter,' I think is responsible for what happens to them."

Advantage Democrats

Trump has never actually said those things. He has, however, avoided wearing masks in public — and occasionally mocked people who do, including Biden.

He has also hosted political events believed to have contributed to the spread, where people avoided wearing masks and socialized in close quarters.

Now he's complaining Democrats spend too much time talking about the virus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and sent him to hospital.

And that points to the second reason Democrats want to elevate this issue in the final weeks of a campaign: political advantage.

Polling data consistently shows Trump getting lower marks for his handling of the virus. 

Trump left hospital and filmed a video at the White House in which he told Americans "don't be afraid" of the virus, and urged them to "get out there." (Erin Scott/Reuters)

"It weighs on the Trump-Pence ticket constantly," said David Byler, a data analyst and columnist at the Washington Post.

Trump has tried to move the election focus elsewhere — street violence, radical leftists, China, the Supreme Court, anywhere but that virus.

His effort was complicated by the fact that he, personally, was flown to and from hospital by helicopter and briefly given supplemental oxygen.

Biden keeps pushing the issue to the fore, for instance encouraging national rules for mask-wearing.

And time is running low for Trump to flip the campaign script.

WATCH | How will Trump cope with COVID-19 now that he's back in the White House?:

What happens after Trump’s release from hospital while battling COVID-19

News

2 months agoVideo
6:06
Former assistant U.S. surgeon general Dr. Ali S. Khan and infectious disease specialist Dr. Susy Hota discuss President Donald Trump’s release from hospital following treatment for COVID-19, including what treatments or symptoms could be next and if there should be concern for those around Trump. 6:06

Bruising batch of polls for Trump 

The president has gotten brutal polling numbers lately, including some showing double-digit deficits nationally and in the critical state of Pennsylvania.   

It's a bit early to gauge the effect of his illness on public opinion, but Biden's margins inched up nationally by several points after last week's first presidential debate, and he gained a bit of ground in Florida, too.

Byler said Biden appears to have received a post-debate bump of a couple of percentage points — what's less clear is whether the bump will last.

He said one possibility is the gap will revert to the norm, meaning a decent national lead for Biden with tighter margins in key states, making the race too close to safely predict.

Another possibility? "This is blastoff time, and it becomes a true [Biden] landslide." 

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris will debate each other Wednesday night, starting at 9 p.m. ET. CBCNews.ca will stream the debate live. (Martin H. Simon, David Becker/Getty Images )

He's skeptical tonight's debate will affect the race. Vice-presidential debates tend to have smaller audiences than presidential debates, and research from past elections shows little evidence of an impact.

VP debates have little impact

The Gallup polling company said in 2012 that none of the eight previous vice-presidential debates occurring since 1976 meaningfully altered voter preferences.

Might it be different this time? 

Given the age of the two presidential candidates – Trump is 74 and Biden is 77 – there are higher-than-usual odds of Pence or Harris being elevated to the top job.

Graph of 2000-2016 presidential and vice-presidential candidates and the millions of estimated TV viewers:

Vice-presidential debates have tended to get lower ratings (except 2008), and haven't had much electoral impact. (Pew Research)

"I'm doubtful," said Daron Shaw, a Republican pollster, university professor and co-director of the Fox News poll. 

"I don't know that the … ballot margin has ever moved more than one point in response to a VP debate. …  This race has been defined throughout by attitudes towards President Trump, and I expect that to continue."

That doesn't mean a vice-presidential debate can't be informative. They sometimes tell an interesting tale about the state of American politics.

Pence's staunch defence of Trump in 2016 foreshadowed how establishment Republicans would eventually rally around the then-party outsider.

Tonight, on a stage in Utah, he'll be nearly four metres away from Harris. And she's demanded that they be separated by a glass shield.

WATCH | See how Pence fared in his last vice-presidential debate in 2016— against Democratic opponent Tim Kaine:

VP candidates on Donald Trump releasing his tax returns

News

4 years agoVideo
1:07
VP candidates on Donald Trump releasing his tax returns 1:07

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now