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October 8, 2020

What students can take away from the vice presidential debate


Directions: First, watch the video above of highlights from the debate. Then read the summary and select clips from the actual debate below to view. Questions for students follow each series of video clips. You can also watch the entire debate here. For a fact check of the debate, click here.

Summary: The vice presidential debate of 2020 took place on Wednesday, October 7, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Current Vice President Mike Pence and his challenger, Sen. Kamala Harris. The debate was calm compared to the chaotic presidential debate of the previous week. Both candidates sat behind protective plexiglass barriers, a measure put in place after dozens of White House staffers and officials, including the president, tested positive for coronavirus. The two vice presidential candidates discussed topics including COVID response, economic policy, the Supreme Court, environment and climate change, foreign policy and police killings.


Warm up questions: 

  • Who are the two vice presidential candidates and what are their political backgrounds?
  • What topics did the debate planners try to cover?
  • When and where did the debate take place?
  • Why are vice presidential debates important?
  • How did the candidates attempt to connect with their supporters, independents and potential new voters?

Focus question: In the video above, what argument or claim made by either candidate would you most want to further investigate, and why?


The vice president defended the administration’s response to the pandemic and asserted that the Trump administration acted quickly to shut down travel from China after the coronavirus had begun to spread. He argued that the suspension of travel early on in the pandemic “saved hundreds of thousands of American lives.” Harris pointed out that the administration knew as early as January about the potential danger of the virus, at the time still largely confined to China, but did not take major action as other nations had done until after it arrived in the U.S.

After Pence defended a high risk ceremony at the White House that may have been the cause of a major outbreak of the disease, Harris criticized the White House for failing to be honest and candid with the American people about the disease and dismissing scientific consensus.

The economy

Pence downplayed the ongoing economic recession and touted the administration’s efforts to cut taxes and roll back regulations since he and President Donald Trump took office in 2017.

While Pence claimed Biden would raise taxes for all Americans, Harris said no Americans making less than $400,000 a year would see their taxes increase. Harris added that Biden’s work to pass the Affordable Care Act while serving as vice president had helped Americans save money by avoiding costly hospital bills. “If you have a pre-existing condition….they’re coming for you,” she warned Americans of the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the health care system.

Focus question: What do you think are important signs of economic recovery? If you could add anything to a federal relief bill, what would it be?

Climate change and the environment

During the first and only vice presidential debate of the 2020 election, Pence did not directly answer whether he believes that climate change poses an existential threat, but acknowledged that “the climate is changing.” Pence criticized Harris’s support for a ban on fracking, although Biden himself does not share that stance.

Harris emphasized that a Biden administration would invest in renewable energy, create millions of jobs, move toward achieving zero emissions by 2050 and carbon neutrality by 2035, adding that Biden would reenter the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.


Focus question: Do you think climate change is a threat, and if so how should the federal government try to address the threat of climate change?

Policing and justice

During an exchange about police reform during the vice presidential debate, Harris pushed back against Pence’s criticism of her record as attorney general for the state of California, saying she was the only one on stage with experience enforcing laws in a justice system that had failed Americans like Breonna Taylor. She continued to talk about what she saw as a systemic failure of the justice system on every level, all the way up to Trump, who would not condemn white supremacists during the presidential debate last week when asked directly.

Focus question: Do you believe the justice system in the United States is fair? Why or why not?


The debate ended with a question from a young student about how candidates would help curb sharp divides in society and work across party lines to help American citizens.

Focus question: Do you think partisanship is a major problem in our society that politicians should address? Why or why not?

Dig deeper: To help contextualize this debate in the history of presidential debates, you can choose clips from this NewsHour archive of past presidential debates, or use this lesson to explore presidential debate strategy and history.

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