With the first presidential debate of the season behind us, Americans have started counting down to the next contest of the general election season: the vice presidential debate.
Except, they really haven’t.
Although Monday’s match-up was the most-watched debate in American history, the vice presidential debate on Oct. 4 is unlikely to garner the same attention.
Either way, though, it probably won’t matter.
Decades of polling trends indicate that even presidential debates have minimal influence on voter behavior, with polls rarely changing more than a few percentage points during debate season — though a point or two can make all the difference in a tight race, as Vox explains. But vice presidential debates hold even less value.
A review of voter preferences before and after the eight vice presidential debates held between 1976 and 2008 “reveals that past vice presidential showdowns have had almost no influence,” a Gallup analysis found.
“I’m not aware of any research that finds vice presidential debates make any difference whatsoever,” Samuel Goldman, a political scientist at George Washington University, told The Huffington Post. “These are pretty forgettable affairs.”
This year, it’s not only the nature of the vice presidential position that makes the debate lackluster, but also the absence of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on stage, according to David Greenberg, presidential historian at Rutgers University.
“Because you don’t have Donald Trump there, it’s going to seem really subdued,” Greenberg said, adding that Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, is “just not going to come off nearly as obnoxious. It’s going to be a less interesting contest for that reason.”
But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to watch the vice presidential debate.
The Oct. 4 debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, will be the only time voters have the opportunity to see a face-off between the two men who could, under certain circumstances, become the leader of the country. It’s the best chance to see the personality, temperament and policy positions of the running mates who are so often less visible.
“We come together in the sense that … millions and millions of people are watching the same thing,” Greenberg said. “We share reflections. We share impressions. We get engaged with the process through debates. They kind of thicken our commitment to political life.”
Occasionally, these events also produce an unforgettable moment. Most famous was when Lloyd Bentsen humiliated Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate with the line, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
That moment didn’t change the course of an election, Greenberg said — just like a vice presidential nominee’s satisfactory debate performance likely will not boost the entire ticket.
Presidential candidates want to believe that selecting a likable, capable running mate reflects their good judgment, but that’s not really how voters make their decision on Election Day.
“That’s about 219th in the ranking of reasons I would prefer Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump,” Greenberg said.
At the end of Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate, the nominees — Pence and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) — can, at best, hope they did no harm.
“The main thing is not to serve up a soundbite that embarrasses your party for the next 48 hours,” Greenberg added. “Those are the ones that stay with us.”