Getty Images

A Guide To Watching The First (And Last) VP Debate

Here’s a reminder of how presidential debates usually unfold!

The facial expression play-off match between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump last Monday ended up becoming the most watched debate in American history. We can say with 100 percent certainty that today’s debate — the first vice-presidential debate between two white guys with gray hair in more than a decade — will not repeat that feat.

But ... we can surely find ways to make this fun and informative, right? This is our first and last chance to watch a VP debate until 2020. Here’s a look at the two people trying to replace Joe Biden — Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and Indiana Governor Mike Pence, in case you forgot — and what they might talk about tonight.

(The debate starts at 9 p.m. ET, and you can watch it here.)


It’s hard to be a vice-presidential candidate when the people on top of the ticket were two of the most recognizable faces in the country even before they ran for office this year. The fact that Clinton and Trump also have dispatched very recognizable surrogates to high-profile assignments across the country probably doesn’t help either — Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Michelle Obama, and Bernie Sanders have all been getting far more press for their election efforts than two guys who actually have their name on the ballot.

Kaine and Pence are basically the election’s dads — sent in to clean up the messes everyone else made and talk about regional food trends or their abandoned musical dreams whenever anyone notices they’re in the room. They have very different dad personality types, though. Pence is the dad who identifies with John Lithgow’s character in Footloose and who never lets anyone else say grace at Thanksgiving. He is still bragging about that new grill he got ... three years ago. Kaine is the dad who embarrasses his children by doing the sprinkler on wedding dance floors, and who hums the Ashokan Farewell from Ken Burns’s The Civil War in the shower every morning.

The Onion, our chief chronicler of vice-presidential personality traits, has tried to capture each of these candidates in a headline. For Pence, there is “Trump Accidentally Fires Off ‘Boring Mike Pence’ Tweet During VP Speech Before He Can Stop Himself.” Kaine gets “Giddy Tim Kaine Presses Face Against Campaign Bus Window As Horse Trailer Drives By.”

What Will They Talk About?

This debate was going to be mostly about Trump anyway, but after this past week, oof. To recap: The Republican nominee defended the time he fat-shamed Miss Universe, tweeted about said Miss Universe’s nonexistent sex tape in the middle of the night, was shown to have appeared briefly in an out-of-print softcore porn videotape found in Buffalo, got into more Trump Foundation trouble, was sent a cease and desist order by the New York attorney general, did an impression of Clinton with pneumonia, said that Clinton may currently be unfaithful to Bill, suggested veterans with PTSD aren’t “strong,” and was the subject of a Newsweek story that said he may have illegally defied the Cuba embargo. The New York Times also obtained his 1995 tax returns, which show that he could have avoided paying taxes for 18 years. On Monday, the AP published a story about how he would constantly ask male Apprentice staffers and contestants if they wanted to sleep with the women in the room.

Since Pence’s role in the 2016 election has been limited to trying to persuade us that Trump’s ideas sound better when transposed into social conservative speak and spoken by a man whose hair gleams like a freshly laundered unicorn, he’s going to probably do a lot of explaining and translating tonight.

Kaine, on the other hand, will probably spend his time trying to make Clinton’s policies sound exciting, deflecting criticisms of his running mate with various iterations of “But Donald Trump dot dot dot,” and trying to break the record for biggest smile ever seen on a debate stage.

To make things a little more exciting, here’s a scavenger hunt of other moments to watch out for.

Questions That Go Like This: “Donald Trump Said a Thing. Your Thoughts?”

Also expect queries like, “Your running mates are old. Thoughts?” (Pence is 57, Kaine is 58.) And, “No one knows who you are — please lip-synch your favorite song for us or let us sort you into a Hogwarts house.”

Bringing Up the Death Penalty

The GOP previewed one of its attacks against Kaine in an ad on Monday morning — an ad that a Republican spokesperson acknowledged in a tweet was like an infamously racist Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign. It focuses on Kaine’s history as a defense attorney.

Unlike Clinton, Kaine is against the death penalty, which opponents have used against him before. When he ran for governor, his opponent ran an ad that said “Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn’t qualify for the death penalty.” New polling this week shows that a majority of Americans do not support the death penalty for the first time in 45 years.

In general, Pence is probably going to talk more about the issues than his opponent.

Someone Invents a New Synonym for the Word “Boring”

The two vice-presidential nominees waste most of their time in front of national cameras talking about how they are “B-list” or how you have probably already fallen asleep listening to them. This was by design — Trump and his surrogates create enough bingeable content on their own, and Clinton wanted to pick someone who would neither hurt nor help her campaign too excessively on the trail. It is inevitable that they will both mention that they are the dry oats soaking in tap water of the 2016 race. Actually, hoping for them to come up with a synonym for boring is probably too much to hope for, as it would do damage to their hard-won Wonder Bread image.

Facial Expression To-Do List

These two aren’t quite as adept as their running mates in the “one facial expression says 1,000 words” department, but they will probably find a few ways to soundlessly showcase their political philosophy and understanding of their role.

The “I’m So Good at Standing Behind People” Face

Standing behind the president is one of the VP’s chief duties. Here’s your chance to show that you can do it even when you have the camera all to yourself.

Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images
Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

Charm Offensive

At the beginning of the debate, Kaine will probably try to throw Pence off his game by smiling at him intensely, wordlessly arguing that they are best friends and shouldn’t fight about a dumb election. To viewers at home, it might look like Kaine is about to burst into song and that trilling animated birds are about to rush the stage.

He’s tried it in debates before.

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call

The “Presidential”

Pence will try to prove that he is a stabilizing force on the Republican ticket by looking serious and not shouting “WRONG” the entire 90 minutes of the debate.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

This expression is a sibling of the “There are weird things going on around me, but I swear that everything’s fine.”



Kaine and Pence are both devout Christians, which has shaped their entire political career — albeit in very different ways. Before becoming a vice-presidential candidate, Pence, who is somewhere between evangelicals and Catholics, was probably best known nationally for his role in the fight over Indiana’s religious freedom bill — and the resulting quick protest from businesses that prevented the legislation from lasting long. Kaine, who is Catholic, spent a year working with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras. Although he is personally against abortion, he supports it politically. Expect both to bring up their faith in their opening statements, and perhaps throughout the debate. They both brought it up the topic during their convention speeches. “I have faith,” Pence said back in July, “faith in the boundless capacity of the American people and faith that God can still heal our land.” Kaine noted that he “went to a Jesuit boys school – Rockhurst High School. The motto of our school was ‘men for others.’ That’s where my faith became vital, a North Star for orienting my life. And I knew that I wanted to fight for social justice.”

Pence might have an added incentive to bring up his faith given that Trump is especially bad at talking to social conservatives — although most evangelicals will probably vote for the Republican ticket no matter what.

That Moment 40 Minutes Into the Debate Where You’re Bored and Just Want to Watch That Clip of Joe Biden Saying “That’s a Bunch of Malarkey” at the 2012 Vice-presidential Debate

Here it is, just in case.