Will this latest debate make a measurable difference in the outcome of the election? Probably not; vice-presidential debates rarely, if ever, do. But something significant may have happened last night, and it involves what usually turns out to matter, if anything does, from televised debates: the parts of their personalities and identities each candidate purposefully or unintentionally conveyed.
If vice-presidential debates are remembered at all, it’s usually for stage-business drama or rhetorical zingers. The most famous case is Lloyd Bentsen’s “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” dressing-down of Dan Quayle in 1988. But that line of Bentsen’s, which lastingly affected Quayle’s reputation, didn’t dent the vote share for the Republican ticket that year. (Quayle and George H. W. Bush won in an Electoral College landslide, 426 votes to 111.) The similarly instant-classic moment from last night’s debate was when a black housefly camped on the snow-white hair of an unaware Mike Pence for two full minutes. Depending on how the election turns out, this will eventually be seen as a minor embarrassment, comparable to toilet paper on your shoe (if Pence and Donald Trump should win), or on the contrary as an overobvious portent (if they lose), without itself making either outcome more likely.
When rhetoricians go back to study the transcript, I think they’ll find a number of carefully prepared and effective lines. To me, the debate-prep work that had gone into crafting responses was easier to notice from Harris than from Pence. This was partly because Harris herself is a fresher and less familiar figure on the national scene; partly because Pence’s answers were mostly versions of what we’ve heard so often in Trump rally speeches; but mainly because Harris generally at least began her answers with a response to the question that had been asked. By contrast, Pence frequently brushed aside the question and talked about whatever he liked.