SALT LAKE CITY — Whew! It’s over. Once again, Utah was the focus of global attention as it hosted the vice presidential debate last Wednesday between Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris. We review implications of the event, especially juxtaposed against interesting Utah poll results.
Days before the debate, a Y2 Analytics survey revealed President Donald Trump was leading Vice President Joseph Biden 50% to 40% in Utah. Interestingly, the president’s support among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was less than 60%, which is lower than prior elections with other Republican candidates. Did the debate change Utahns’ perceptions of the presidential candidates?
Pignanelli: “What I will remember most about tonight’s vice presidential debate … is I will not remember it.” — Stephen Colbert
Every year, Americans flock to Utah to be rejuvenated through outdoor activities, religious gatherings and interaction with friendly residents. Once again, the Beehive State — albeit electronically — invigorated (or relieved) millions through simply hosting an argument. Critics are complaining about snarky behavior and dodging questions. So what? The purpose was to produce a treasured ritual of democracy and that running mates are up to the ultimate task. Mission accomplished.
The Y2 poll also indicates 56% of Latter-day Saints believe Trump is a dishonest man, but Pence is beloved. But, the vast majority do not like the politics of Biden, who suffers high disapproval ratings.
The survey demonstrates a fundamental element of Utahns. While uncomfortable with Trump, they will hold their nose to vote for him in preference to his policies. Furthermore, they expend resources to host a vice presidential debate, treating all parties with courtesy. Utahns are pragmatic and believe the traditions of our democracy are more important than personal differences.
Utah supplied the only humorous episode in this entire election season — the famous fly on Pence’s head. Success all around for our beloved state.
Webb: It’s remarkable how Trump’s surrogates, particularly the vice president, make a better case for Trump than he does for himself. Pence was a much better debater than Trump was in the earlier debate. Pence persuasively defended administration policies and effectively articulated the conservative political philosophy.
America’s vice president is a heartbeat away from becoming president. Pence appeared to be much better prepared for that eventuality, on both domestic issues and foreign policy, than Harris.
The Y2 survey also showed a significant number of Utahns don’t like the president personally, but do like his policies. Many Utah Republicans are struggling with these questions: Can I vote for someone whose personality and character repels me, but whose policies and results I generally like? And if I don’t vote for Trump, will I be complicit in helping ensure a liberal, Democratic takeover of Washington (and the packing of the U.S. Supreme Court)?
Those are weighty and difficult questions. Pence’s calm, but resolute, defense of his boss and his accomplishments should provide some rationale for Republicans to vote Republican. The reality is that Trump’s bark is almost always worse than his bite. He makes outrageous statements, blows things up, and takes every issue to the brink, but ultimately gets good results (mostly).
The Utah Debate Commission, led by former state Sen. Karen Hale and former Senate President Wayne Neiderhauser worked in conjunction with the University of Utah through Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. What is the impact on Utah of this historic event beyond just highlighting vice presidential candidates?
Pignanelli: Despite the criticism, Tuesday’s debate is the gold standard for future interactions. The local commission and the university provided flawless physical and technical support (other than that fly). Tactics used by the candidates will be studied for years to come.
It was nice the candidates soaked up some Utah history and culture. Hopefully, they and other engaged observers will learn more about the “Utah Way” — as a model for government and business in the post pandemic environment.
Webb: The Utah Debate Commission and the University of Utah did a terrific job staging this debate. It was fun to watch the national media focus a bit on Utah and see Utah landmarks on network TV and cable networks. By all measures, this was a successful effort and the debate itself was enlightening for voters.
Trump announced that he will not participate in a virtual debate. Are debates over for this election season and what will they look like in the future?
Pignanelli: Earlier, Trump wanted more debates to demonstrate his prowess on stage. But the strategy has shifted to more rallies and these matches are a distraction, so there is unlikely to be any more this season. Future debates will mirror the Utah structure — hopefully without the plexiglass.
Webb: Trump may have simply been lobbing one of his hand grenades. Negotiations may work things out so the last two debates can proceed. Trump could win the last two debates if he would adopt the demeanor of his vice president. But Trump is Trump.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: email@example.com.