Vice presidential debate reinforces partisan preferences, study finds

In virtual debate-viewing study, participants find U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris outperforms Vice President Mike Pence.

Oct. 8, 2020     
Contact: Eric Stann, 573-882-3346, 

this is a picture of Ben R. Warner

Ben R. Warner

Results of a virtual debate-viewing study among college students from the 2020 vice presidential debate revealed not only a reinforcement of partisan preferences, but study participants also believed U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris had a stronger performance over Vice President Mike Pence.

The study, coordinated by the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri, included a survey of approximately 230 college students from Mizzou, Cameron University, Marquette University, Salisbury University, University of Louisville, University of North Texas and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Among the participants, 48% self-identified as Democrats, 28% as Republicans, and 24% as independents. Seventy two percent were female, 27% were male, and one participant was gender non-binary.

According to Ben Warner, associate professor of communication and co-director of the Political Communication Institute, the survey’s findings reflected similar results from previous vice presidential debates.

“Voter preference changed very little during the debate as partisanship was strengthened among participants, reflecting traditional outcomes from vice presidential debates,” Warner said.

Other results from the survey showed:

  • Among the college students surveyed, 69% viewed Harris as last night’s debate winner, compared to 31% for Pence. This represents a strong favorability for Harris over Pence among the participants, especially independents.
  • Harris’s performance was viewed the strongest, with 75% of students rating her performance as either very good, good or somewhat good. Fifty-seven percent of students rated Pence’s performance as either very good, good or somewhat good.
  • The performance of moderator Susan Page was split 50/50 as either somewhat bad or neutral.
picture of Mitchell S. McKinney

Mitchell S. McKinney

Following the debate, viewers’ overall evaluations of Harris rose by seven points and Pence by two and a half points. Viewers were asked to rate both candidates on a “feeling thermometer” scale from 0-100. The average evaluation of Harris rose from 49 points before the debate to 56 points afterward, while evaluations of Pence rose from 27.5 points before the debate to 30 points afterward.

The vice presidential debate proved to be a vast improvement from the first presidential debate, observed Mitchell S. McKinney, professor of communication and director of the Political Communication Institute.

“To the benefit of the American public, tonight’s debate represented a much more substantive discussion of issues,” said McKinney. “Citizens were presented with two starkly different narratives. One, from Pence, who emphasized four years of strong leadership under President Donald Trump. Another, from Harris, who offered an effective prosecution of the President’s record, making the case that Trump does not deserve four more years in office.”

McKinney believes both candidates could claim victory from this debate, having avoided any major gaffes or blunders that would hurt their ticket’s chances with voters. However, he did observe distinct differences between both candidates’ debate performances.

“While Pence frequently ignored debate rules and moderator Susan Page’s questions, Harris would more frequently address the questions put to her, often responding without vagueness and with facts,” McKinney said. “Pence regularly spoke over his allotted time, interrupted Harris frequently and diverted attention away from the questions raised by the debate moderator to express his trust and confidence in the American people.”

McKinney also noted Harris’ command of the wide range of issues raised in the debate.

“While some suggested Harris might not fare so well on the issues of international affairs, one of her strongest answers was on America’s role in the world and the decline of our nation’s international leadership under President Trump,” McKinney said. “Her critique of Trump in his role as commander-in-chief and his treatment of military personnel was particularly strong. Harris also forcefully addressed the president’s record on race relations, rebuking his failure in the first debate to condemn white supremacists.”

The research consortium led by the Political Communication Institute plans to conduct similar debate-viewing studies of college students for the two remaining presidential debates.

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