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Who won the Pence-Harris debate? Experts give their verdict

NBC News got a report card from three specialists who watched the face-off between Pence and Harris.
Image: Mike Pence And Kamala Harris Take Part In Vice Presidential Debate
Kamala Harris debates Mike Pence at the University of Utah on Oct. 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City.Morry Gash / Pool via Getty Images

Two of the three members of an NBC News panel of debate experts gave the nod to Sen. Kamala Harris in Wednesday night's debate with Vice President Mike Pence and the third called it a draw.

The highly anticipated face-off enabled both candidates to lay out their ticket's policy positions more clearly than last week's chaotic first presidential debate, but fewer interruptions from Harris helped give her the edge.

Here are their report cards.

Susan Millsap, communications professor at Ohio’s Otterbein University and adviser to the student debate team

Overall: "I didn't like it much," Millsap said, because both candidates kept pivoting from the questions asked by moderator Susan Page of USA Today. "Nobody gets an 'A' today," she added, while "the moderator I would give an 'F' to. She couldn't get control of the debate."

Pence: "Kept interrupting or speaking longer than he was supposed to. It just drove me crazy," she said. As for his arguments, "all he does is deflect. I think at one point, he was up eight straw men arguments and red herrings."

Millsap noted that the vice president pivoted whenever Harris mentioned that the administration was trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act in court.

She also said that Pence, like President Donald Trump last week, didn't say much about plans for a second term — just that Joe Biden's policies would be terrible. "I don't think that's going to change any minds," she said.

Harris: "She came across as well-prepared," Millsap said. While she was "more direct" than Pence in her answers, "there are a couple of times I got frustrated with her because she didn't answer the questions that she was asked," citing Harris' dodges on questions about the Green New Deal and packing the Supreme Court.

But Millsap said Harris had some standout moments, such as when she was speaking about the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Kayla Mueller, whose family was in the audience. "It felt very honest and came across as sincere," she said.

Millsap's report card:

Pence's grade: D

Harris' grade: B

Mitchell McKinney, director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri

Overall: "Last week's debate, the real loser was the American people. Tonight was a much more substantive discussion of issues where you were able to tell policy differences, so that was better — but the bar was kind of low," McKinney said. "Both of the candidates performed in a way they can claim victory" and "neither committed a fatal flaw."

Pence: "Performed well in terms of putting forth a defense of the Trump-Pence record," McKinney said, and his relaxed demeanor may have helped "calm the waters" for Republicans who were upset about Trump's hyperaggressive performance last week.

"On the negative side for Pence, while not as extreme as Trump's performance, he seemed intent on violating the rules of the debate and speaking over Sen. Harris and the moderator. It was kind of like Trump-lite," McKinney said.

Harris: "I thought she projected strength and forcefulness and a sincerity that came through her performance," McKinney said. "She also did a good job of standing up to Pence" by speaking up when she was being interrupted and "not being overpowered" by him. Her answers "more direct and factual" than Pence's, he added, and she "more often answered the question that was put to her."

McKinney's report card:

Pence's grade: B

Harris' grade: A-

Jacob Thompson, communications professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and director of the debate team

Overall: After last week's debate, this "was a breath of fresh air," Thompson said. "Both candidates in the debate stuck to their talking points, they maintained civility and reassured the public democratic norms have not been totally destroyed," he said.

"The star of the night was the fly that landed on Pence's head. It had some staying power," he said.

Pence: "Fairly successful hammering on the left-wing nature of the Biden-Harris ticket, and the possibility of higher taxes and the Green New Deal," Thompson said. The interruptions and speaking over his time may have hurt him a bit, but "he was very civil and very calm," which helped.

Dodging a question on the peaceful transfer of power, however, was noticeable.

Harris: "Harris did a good job of sticking to her main talking point, focused on a failure of leadership from the Trump administration. She also hit really hard on health care coverage and the dangers faced by folks with pre-existing conditions," and did a good job of tying those points to the administration's pandemic response and rush to confirm another Supreme Court justice before the election.

She and Pence both had nonanswers to several questions, but her sidestep on the question about packing the Supreme Court was especially glaring, he said.

Thompson's report card:

Pence's grade: B

Harris' grade: B