Undecided voters pan Harris' 'condescending reactions' as both sides claim win in VP debate

"I might get #cancelled for this, but my undecided focus group doesn't like how Kamala Harris interacts with her opponent. We saw this in the Dem debates – she is applauded for her knowledge, but they just don't like her 'condescending reactions.'  #VPDebate" — Pollster Frank Luntz

Published: October 7, 2020 10:06pm

Updated: October 8, 2020 9:12am

Undecided voters panned Sen. Kamala Harris' "condescending reactions" to Vice President Mike Pence in Wednesday night's vice presidential debate while national leaders from both parties claimed victory for their respective candidates.

As the vice presidential candidates clashed onstage at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Pollster Frank Luntz at the L.A. Times conducted a focus group of undecided voters throughout the 90-minute exchange. By the end, they'd rendered their verdict: "I might get #cancelled for this, but my undecided focus group doesn't like how Kamala Harris interacts with her opponent," Luntz posted on Twitter. "We saw this in the Dem debates – she is applauded for her knowledge, but they just don't like her 'condescending reactions.'  #VPDebate"

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Luntz also reported his focus group's take on Pence: "My undecided voters think Mike Pence is more professional, but that he looks tired," Luntz tweeted. "They think Kamala Harris is more passionate, but her reaction-faces are really bothering people. #VPDebate

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In a bizarre moment, a fly landed on Pence's hair for a couple minutes, drawing much attention online.

Luntz joked: "My group of undecided voters want to give the fly some time to respond.  #VPDebate

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Chris Jackson, senior vice president at Ipsos polling, which was also tracking real-time reviews of the debate reported at FiveThirtyEight, "Sentiment towards Pence turns sharply more positive at the end. However, in a testament to the surreal nature of this election, much of that is being generated by glib conversation about the fly that briefly landed on Pence's head."

Nathaniel Rakich, an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight, live-blogged on his company's site that he thought the needle wouldn't be moved much in either direction by the vice presidential debate.

"Pence and Harris both got a little testy, but no more than a usual debate," Rakich wrote. "Pence really stayed focused on a few topics, including insisting that Biden would raise taxes and ban fracking. Harris started really strong by landing a lot of punches on the coronavirus, but she also didn't have great answers on court-packing or foreign policy. Ultimately, those topics either don't matter much to the American people, or the public has already made their minds up on them. So I didn't see anything tonight that would change the trajectory of the race."

Unsurprisingly, much of the debate early on focused on the coronavirus. Democrats had made the Trump administration response to COVID-19 the centerpiece of their campaign — even before news broke of President Trump's own positive test for the virus. And no one short of the  president himself has done more to shape that response — policy, execution, and messaging — than Pence, the chairman of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

During the debate, Edward Luce, U.S. national editor at the Financial Times said Pence "is immeasurably better at defending the Trump administration than his boss. He never seems ruffled."

President Trump immediately after the debate tweeted: "Mike Pence WON BIG!" 

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised Harris' performance: "Thank you @KamalaHarris  for making the case for ACA & against  Trump assault on pre-existing conditions benefit in the middle of a pandemic. Tonight, Harris declared Trump/Pence total failures in the fight against COVID. America deserves Biden. Bravo Kamala, Poor Pence! -NP"

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Debate moderator Susan Page of USA Today drew mixed reviews, with many viewers saying her substantive questions lacked any additional probing.

Nate Silver: "Susan Page asked a lot of good questions and very few follow-ups when the moment demanded them," wrote Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.

"I kept being torn between being impressed and being frustrated with her," wrote Silver's colleague Maggie Koerth, a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

One possibly effective shot Pence took was at the national media during an exchange on race issues, telling Page: "I think that's one of the things that makes people dislike the media so much in this country, Susan, is that you selectively edit just like Senator Harris did — comments that President Trump and I and others on our side of the aisle make." 

A Gallup public opinion survey released near the beginning of the coronavirus shutdown found eight of the nine institutions studied received majority positive ratings — led by U.S. hospitals, at 88% approval. However, the media ranked dead last in the study of Americans' trust in institutions. Only the media got a more negative than positive review. The finding is part of a decades-long decline in popular trust in the media, Gallup's editor-in-chief Mohamed Younis said at that time.

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