Last week’s presidential debate was the most watched in history, drawing in some 83 million viewers. Since then, Donald Trump has blamed the perception that he lost the debate on the media, a faulty microphone and debate moderator Lester Holt, while citing unscientific online polls as evidence that he really won and launching personal attacks against Hillary Clinton and former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. These culminated in Trump encouraging his followers on Twitter to “check out” Machado’s nonexistent sex tape. Clinton, meanwhile, has enjoyed a bounce in the polls.
In sharp contrast, tonight’s vice presidential debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence will offer little in the way of spectacle, and its ratings will likely pale in comparison to last week’s bonanza. That’s a shame. Although the vice presidential debate rarely if ever changes the trajectory of the race — especially this year, with such high-profile nominees at the top of both tickets — it could affect the trajectory of the country, and there are some compelling reasons to tune in.
For one thing, in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the two major parties have nominated their oldest candidates ever. Notwithstanding Trump’s doctor Harold Bornstein’s dubious claim that Trump “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” there is a serious chance that the next vice president could become president, or at least in an emergency. Moreover, Clinton and Trump are the least popular nominees in modern history, and if that unpopularity persists or deepens, then either one could be inclined or pressured not to run again in four years. (A similar fate befell Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1968 presidential election). That would make Kaine or Pence the presumptive frontrunner for his party’s nomination.
In short, one of these guys could easily end up as president.
That’s not the only good reason to watch tonight’s debate. Clinton and Trump are both lightning rods of controversy, and a certain amount of trivial tabloid nonsense surrounds both of them — Trump actually seems to invite it.
Their running mates, however, are “boring” and “B-list” by their own admission. This means that instead of spending time debating scandals and the finer points of fluff, Kaine and Pence will be likely pressed for details on what a Clinton or Trump administration would actually look like. How would each administration confront climate change, income inequality and racial discrimination? How would they treat international free trade agreements and military alliances? How would a Clinton administration build upon the Affordable Care Act? How would a Trump administration build the wall? And luckily, Kaine and Pence are both experienced public servants who should be well equipped to provide some answers.
In a campaign reminiscent of a reality TV show, it can be difficult to see past the grand finale (which is fast approaching). But squint, and you can make out the distant outline of the next four years beyond the next four weeks. Tonight’s debate will offer a glimpse of what those years might look like.
Groves is a government sophomore from Dallas. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.