My take on this debate is basically the same as my mid-debate take. I wouldn’t say Harris wowed. There weren’t a lot of zingers. But she hit every last point the campaign could have asked for. Just methodically. Killing the ACA, Charlottesville, the horrific failure of the COVID response. She didn’t really care about Mike Pence. She was there to make a case against Donald Trump. And she did.
Would it shift the direction of the campaign? No. If Biden and Harris were behind it would be nice to see but it’s not a game changer. But they don’t need a game changer. They needed a performance that locked down a lead that is already in place and confirmed the themes they want at the center of the campaign conversation. They got it. She hit the points they wanted and in ways Joe Biden couldn’t.
Mike Pence is a smooth and able politician. But he was mostly going through the motions. He did fine. But Trump’s campaign needed a lot more than fine. The big danger for the Biden campaign was that Pence would open some strong new line of attack against Biden, perhaps doing that by catching Harris out in defending him or failing to do so. Nothing like that happened. When Pence really got traction it was mainly on points that appeal to the Republican base. That’s wasted time.
You can only evaluate debates in their immediate political context. Here the Trump campaign is running out of time to change the trajectory of the election. They needed Pence to at least start doing that tonight. He didn’t. In context, it was almost as bad a result as the first presidential round, even if Pence turned in a serviceable performance, which he did.