"OK, so we’re doing an anterior nasal swab plus an oropharyngeal swab. You take one swab and twirl it around each nostril for two seconds, then take a second and scrape it against both tonsils. That’s it!"
I was standing in a makeshift room inside the University of Utah football stadium expected to self-administer my COVID-19 test, and I was clueless.
"What if I don’t have tonsils anymore?" I asked the guy in the white jacket, as I probed the swab into the back of my throat. He responded: "You’re doing fine; you’ve got it! All done."
It was my first-ever test for the virus, and I was taking it in order to be cleared to enter the media center for the vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City between Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris. I headed to my hotel for self-quarantining until my results came back, which could take up to 12 hours. I didn’t know until 2 a.m. that I had tested negative.
Welcome to the 2020 VP debate.
The next day I parked my car in a mostly empty stadium parking lot and got my green wristband indicating my negative COVID-19 status. A shuttle took me to the debate compound, along with two journalists from Japan.
I couldn’t help wondering what they thought of the differences between our two countries’ experiences with the coronavirus. I suppose I knew. The facts tell a head-shaking story: The United States, with a population of 328 million, has had 213,000 deaths. Japan, with a population of 127 million, has had 1,623 deaths. Yeah, I think I knew what they were thinking.
Inside the fenced-in debate compound on the University of Utah campus, I was given a surgical mask to replace my cloth one. In the media tent and outside the debate hall, everyone wore their green bracelets and everyone wore their masks.
Outside the fence, a pro-Trump rally was underway. Hundreds of people yelling "Four more years!" — most without masks, yelling at the debate hall, at the world, at me.
After talking to campaign staffers and advisers from both sides, I went inside the media center to watch the closed-circuit raw video of the debate. Normally for a presidential debate, I would be jammed in with 4,000 other journalists. For this debate, I was joined by about a hundred.
The actual debate was a real debate in the sense that Harris and Pence took questions, answered them, responded to each other at times and, for the most part, were civil. Both candidates performed well, made no gaffes and hit the key points they wanted to hit.
But make no mistake, both were under pressure. Pence’s pressure came from his campaign’s dire position. He needed to be good to staunch the bleeding after the first presidential debate and Trump’s coronavirus hospitalization and subsequent behavior. To wit: Before the first presidential debate, Biden was up, on average, 6 points nationally. The morning of the VP debate, Trump was down 10.
Pence was smooth, even courteous at times, displaying a deft ability to avoid a question he didn’t want to answer and needle Harris at the same time. He even got in a jab about Biden’s 1988 plagiarism scandal, a reference nobody but us old political junkies would understand but appreciated nonetheless. Pence also performed much better than his boss. An Ipsos post-debate poll showed 60% thought he did well, while only 33% said the same thing about Trump after his debate.
Harris’ pressure was of a different sort. As the first Black and Asian VP major party nominee, as well as only the third female VP nominee in American history, she was well aware of the different standards by which people would be evaluating her.
She and her campaign team had been reading research studies that show women are held to often unfair standards when debating and making presentations. Harris had to thread a line between being smart but not cocky and between being critical but not cruel, and for the most part she did.
Harris also handled Pence interruptions well, holding up her hand and saying, "Excuse me; I’m speaking." It worked: A CNN post debate poll showed Harris won the debate 59%-38%, and a Morning Consult poll showed her winning it 51%-40%.
Most importantly for the Biden campaign, the Ipsos poll found 61% of debate watchers said Harris’ policies were "Good" while 44% said the same of Pence’s policies.
Ipsos’ poll also reveals that Harris made a more positive impression. After the debate, Pence ended up at the same -14 net favorability rating he started with, while Harris’ net favorability rating increased from +5 to +10, better than where Biden ended up after the presidential debate, at +7. Trump’s unfavorability after the first debate increased three points to -26.
So a VP debate in the time of COVID-19 was a success in that the American people got to learn not only about the policies of the candidates but also get a glimpse into what kind of leader they would be if they had to step into the center seat.
Before my flight home, a young woman sat two seats away and looked out the window nervously. "Are you OK?" I asked.
"This is my first-ever airplane flight. Am I going to die?" she asked. I smiled and said: "Yes, but not today. Maybe when you’re a hundred years old."
She looked at me and laughed. Later, after she gasped upon takeoff, she relaxed and said softly: "Wait, are those clouds? This is amazing. I’m going to travel a lot in my life, I just know it."
For her, a first plane ride might just be the beginning of endless possibilities, and it happened during COVID-19.
For me, I sincerely hoped that a VP debate in the middle of a pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.