GOP pollster Frank Luntz told CNBC on Thursday that his 15-person focus group of undecided voters felt Vice President Mike Pence performed better than Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris in the vice presidential debate.
“All but two of them felt that Mike Pence won the debate,” Luntz said on “Squawk Box.” “I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that he did, and he did not because of what he talked about, but how he communicated.”
In particular, Luntz said he believes Pence was well-received by participants because in Wednesday night’s debate in Utah, he cut a sharp contrast to how President Donald Trump performed in his brawl against Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Luntz stressed that voters are looking for more than just where candidates stand on particular issues.
“What they’re doing is watching to see whether or not they can trust that individual, and Mike Pence did extraordinarily well in that. He never got agitated. He never got flustered,” said Luntz. “This is a complete difference from the first debate that our focus group thought Joe Biden won because they thought, frankly, that Donald Trump wasn’t acting presidential.”
Focus group participants were looking for more specifics on both campaigns’ plans for helping the U.S. economy recover from the damaged caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to Luntz.
“I want to be clear about this, voters aren’t looking backwards. They’re looking ahead,” Luntz said. “We know what happened over the last fours. Now tell me what’s going to happen over the next four weeks, four months and four years.”
Tammy Vigil, a professor of communication studies at Boston University, told CNBC she believes both Pence and Harris demonstrated their ability to lead the country during the debate. However, the political communication researcher said on “Street Signs Europe” that Harris performed better in articulating “a truthful critique of the opponent.”
“The blows that Pence landed, as we can see through several of the fact checks, were actually often based on false information or false reads of situations,” she said. At one point, Pence insisted Biden would ban fracking. In fact, Biden does not support an outright ban on fracking.
“[Pence] repeated false information often enough to make it sound like it might be true, but it really wasn’t, so I think in that case, Harris was definitely better in both landing the blows and landing blows that could stick because they were based on actual fact,” added Vigil.
There were times during Wednesday’s debate when Pence tried interrupting Harris and speaking over the moderator, Susan Page. At one point, the California Democrat and first Black woman to appear on a major party ticket rebutted and said, “I’m speaking.”
The moment resonated with some, reminiscent of times women have been interrupted by men. However, Luntz said his focus group said Harris’ presentation on the line came across as too rehearsed. “She was very well prepped in terms of the language she used. Very effective,” he said. But, he stressed, “for undecided voters, authenticity matters so much and they did not find her authentic.”
“You can’t give Mike credit for winning the debate, you have to give Kamala responsibility for losing it,” Luntz added.
The Biden campaign has expanded its lead over the Trump ticket in the wake of the first presidential debate. As of Thursday morning, Biden carries a 9.7 percentage point lead over Trump in a RealClearPolitics average of national polls. It was 6.1 percentage points on Sept. 30, the day after the rancorous Biden-Trump contest.
Luntz said Pence’s performance in the lone vice presidential debate should serve as a “wakeup call” for the Trump campaign as it prepares for more debates. The upcoming one set for Oct. 15 is now going to be held virtually due to coronavirus concerns.
“If you deliver a message the way Mike Pence delivered it, if you are straightforward, if you don’t insult, if you challenge, as Mike Pence did, without being rude and offensive, you have the ability to capture the hearts and minds of those undecideds,” Luntz said. “But if you behave in a way that doesn’t allow people to even hear the messaging, even hear the responses, you will fail.”