Prosecution, Pivots, and Plexiglass – A Communicator’s Closing Statement on the VP Debate

BY Tanner Edwards

October 8, 2020

Public Affairs

Conventional wisdom may say that VP debates don’t really move the needle, but I’d argue Wednesday night’s event in Salt Lake City was more potent than the usual undercard event – particularly for the communications-minded viewers who tuned in.

Of course, Twitter may long remember October 7 as the “eye and the fly” debate. And although viewership of the vice presidential debate was up by 35% from 2016, it’s unclear how much of the electorate can really be moved at this point. Yet the evening was still an important presentation of two wildly different American realities – and two skilled communicators who were on top of their stylistically different games.

Through the plexiglass, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris gave the country a far more substantive conversation than the headache-inducing first presidential debate. The former conservative radio host faced off against the former prosecutor, and both showcased a few communications approaches worth studying:

Command the Space with Grace 

Though his interruptions were less consistent and belligerent, Vice President Pence nevertheless emulated the top of his ticket by repeatedly talking over Senator Harris and debate moderator Susan Page.

Senator Harris skillfully called out this behavior with grace, taking command of the stage, altering the VP’s tactics for the rest of the debate, and no doubt drawing a cheer from many in the audience. The move was a good reminder of the power of establishing an assertive – but respectful – presence in a communications setting, and pushing to shape a discussion on your terms early on before a precedent is set. Given the progression of the rest of the debate versus that of the first presidential debate, the American people were surely better served because of that move.

Break It Down

Senator Harris also was particularly effective at cutting to the chase in a way that didn’t condescend.

For one, she did well to not bury the lede. After “thank you Susan,” her first words across from the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force were scalding: “the American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country. And here are the facts. 210,000 dead people in our country in just the last several months. Over 7 million people who have contracted this disease. One in five businesses closed. We’re looking at frontline workers who have been treated like sacrificial workers.”

Later, she broke down abstract disputes and policy discussions in more relatable terms that helped drive home her point.

On the Administration’s coronavirus response and their instruction to remain calm – “How calm were you when you were panicked about where you’re going to get your next roll of toilet paper? How calm were you when your kids were sent home from school and you didn’t know when they could go back?”

On the president’s tax information – “When we say in debt, it means you owe money to somebody. And it’d be really good to know who the President of the United States, the Commander in Chief, owes money to because the American people have a right to know what is influencing the president’s decisions.”

And on foreign policy – “it might sound complicated, but…just think about it as relationships…you’ve got to be loyal to your friends…and got to know who your adversaries are, and keep them in check.”

In both terminology and tone, Senator Harris welcomed viewers into the discussion – and helped make her case in a digestible, resonant way.

The Power of the Pivot 

With the dexterity of a radio host managing a caller who had drifted from his desired topic, Vice President Pence doggedly reframed the discussion on more favorable terms throughout the evening.

When criticized for the Administration’s COVID-19 response, he pivoted to the strength of the American people’s response and how things could have been so much worse. On the Supreme Court, he raised the specter of a “packed Court” as the real threat to Americans. And on matters of systemic racial injustice, he chose to focus more time on the pain of looting and destruction.

Dubious and mendacious as these answers may have been, they mostly stayed in the ballpark of the topic at hand, demonstrating a smooth pivoting tactic that is an important skill for any communicator’s toolkit.

Grapple with the Issue and Change the Narrative 

While the pivot was well-practiced, the Vice President couldn’t escape every Trump-era controversy during the debate. When the VP did engage on some of the thorniest moments of this presidency, he was more direct about addressing the issues at hand than has been standard for this Administration.

Pence worked to change the narrative on issues like Trump’s relationship with white supremacists (“he condemned the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists and has done so repeatedly”) and denigration of the U.S. Military as full of “suckers” and “losers” (“I can assure all of you with sons and daughters serving in our military, President Donald Trump not only respects but reveres all of those who served in our armed forces, and any suggestion otherwise is ridiculous”). Though these answers leave much to be desired, they surely help ease doubts among at least a slice of the electorate who may have tuned out the president’s reflexive “fake news” messaging at this point in his term, showing the value of confronting certain issues head on with a different messenger.

Speak Aspirationally

These are dismal times, and there’s a deep desire to feel heard and feel hope. Both Vice President Pence and Senator Harris were especially effective when they tapped into this feeling, a good lesson for communicators trying to meet our moment.

Sen. Harris referenced prominent Republicans and a bipartisan coalition of conscience as having assembled behind Joe Biden, in defense of democracy and the best of what a fair, kind, and dynamic America can be.

Vice President Pence spoke effectively about the close friendship between the late Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia as a model for unity in spite of disagreement.

Amid all that 2020 has unleashed, such invocations were powerful notes to strike, messaging stability in the storm. Whatever is to come in this election year like no other, that vision of who we are and who we can be holds great power for communicators looking to make a real connection with their own audiences on the road ahead.

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BY Tanner Edwards

October 8, 2020

Public Affairs