This year’s election pits two of the oldest candidates in U.S. history against each other, with President Donald Trump being 74-years-old and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, 77, giving added significance to each party’s nomination for vice president. Senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence have arguably the highest chances of ascending to the presidency through the death of the head of state since Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded President John F. Kennedy after his assassination.
“They are the image of our country alongside our president,” said Nicole Gazo, a freshman majoring in political science. “We should be placing a lot of importance on our vice president.”
Harris was announced as Biden’s pick on Aug. 11 after promising that his running mate would be a woman. Her election would be historic; she is the first woman of color to be nominated for the vice president role by a major political party.
While their roles as first in the line of succession for president ensure Pence and Harris will be highly talked about in the coming weeks, some students say they aren’t sure they will have any effect on the election results.
“In terms of how they impact the election, I don’t really think they do,” said Ben Dias, a junior majoring in American studies and economics and treasurer of College Republicans.
The vice president’s duties are outlined in the Constitution, such as presiding over the Senate and being the first person in the order of presidential succession in the event that something happens to the president. Over time, the vice president has been given other responsibilities by their respective presidents, usually acting as an advisor to the president.
Harris, a 55-year-old California senator, is one of only three women to have been the vice presidential candidate for a major political party. She has said that she identifies as Black, making her the first Black woman to be on a major party ticket in the United States.
In regards to Harris’ identity, Gazo is very empowered by the fact that she is the vice presidential nominee.
“I think it’s amazing, and during these times, we need people who represent the minorities,” Gazo said. “As a woman and as a Latina, it just proves that if there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Dias said how her identity as a woman of color may have helped her, with movements for racial justice and equality sweeping the nation this past summer, but also acknowledged her qualifications.
“I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had been picked, regardless of whatever social stuff was going on today,” Dias said.
A graduate of Howard University, Harris worked her way up and was elected as district attorney of San Francisco in 2003. She then served as the attorney general for the state of California from 2011 until she was sworn in as a United States senator in 2017. In January of 2019, Harris announced her decision to run for president but dropped out of the race in December due to low polling.
Her platform included many traditionally Democratic beliefs; she endorsed the Green New Deal and signed a pledge as a candidate to not accept campaign donations from oil and gas companies. As a senator, she also introduced legislation alongside U.S. House member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) aiming to protect frontline communities when environmental bills are introduced.
She is a proponent of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, and sought to expand this program if she were elected president. DACA provides undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children with the opportunity to gain legal residence and work without the fear of deportation. In 2018, when family separation at the border was in the public eye due to Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy, she attended a protest in San Diego denouncing his actions.
Harris’ history as a prosecutor is a controversial subject for many. As a self-described “progressive prosecutor,” she has been against the death penalty and, as of recently, has been vocal in the fight against racial injustice.
However, her record as an attorney is a frequent target of Republicans, who say it contradicts her message of racial justice.
As district attorney, critics and supporters alike have called her handling of cases regarding men of color who have been wrongfully convicted into question. One such case is Jamal Trulove, a California man charged with first degree murder. Then serving as San Francisco district attorney, Harris praised the conviction. He was acquitted in 2015 after a retrial found that a prosecutor on the case had made false statements.
She has also drawn the ire of some police officers and unions after she did not pursue the death penalty against the perpetrator of the murder of a San Fransisco police officer in 2004.
“It is just very hypocritical to have both a presidential candidate who wrote the 1994 crime bill and then the DA that put people in bars for it to suddenly switch up and say, ‘No no no, we care we care we care,’” Dias said. “If they cared, they wouldn’t have made the mistakes that they did 25 years ago.”
Gazo said she recognizes Harris’ less-than-perfect background but doesn’t feel that it should greatly impact the campaign.
“We all make mistakes,” Gazo said. “[Harris] knows the sensitivity of everything right now, and I think that she’s a smart woman. She wouldn’t be going into the presidency with this old mentality of her past mistakes and stances on some issues.”
Pence, like his Democratic counterpart, also has a political history that has been scrutinized since being nominated and assuming his role as vice president.
An Indiana native with a law degree from Indiana University, Pence started out in private practice. In the 1980s and ’90s, he had two unsuccessful campaigns for the House of Representatives. It was only after building a strong conservative following from his radio talk shows, “Washington Update with Mike Pence,” and “The Mike Pence Show,” that he was able to successfully win a seat in the House of Representatives in 2000. As the representative for Indiana’s 2nd Congressional District, Pence maintained his conservative beliefs. He has said that he is a “Christian, conservative and Republican, in that order.”
“He’s a Christian evangelist, which is very mainstream conservative,” Dias said.
Gazo echoed these sentiments, noting that he seems to be very “old-school.”
This commitment to Christian and conservative values has made him a controversial figure. Advocates for the LGBTQ+ movement have taken note of Pence’s record as a legislator; as a representative, he opposed the repeal of the Clinton administration’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which encouraged gay men and women to stay in the closet to avoid discrimination.
Pence sponsored and supported legislation for a federal media shield law, which would exempt reporters from subpoenas requiring the disclosure of confidential information compiled for news gathering purposes. This gained him the support of many journalists.
Pence is also a known opponent of abortion, and in 2011, wrote a bill that would have defunded Planned Parenthood, a non-profit that provides reproductive healthcare through hundreds of clinics around the country.
After his time in the House, Pence was elected as governor of Indiana. He later signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, legislation some felt allowed businesses to discriminate against gay people. Additionally, Pence supported a HJ-3, a bill that would have added an amendment to the Indiana’s constitution banning same sex marriage.
“Considering the Trump [administration] has already been trying to attack the Supreme Court cases dealing with gay rights and Pence’s controversial history, what makes us think that within the next four years they’re not gonna try something else?” Gazo said.
Trump named Pence as the chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force at the onset of the pandemic this year. Some students voiced concern due to Pence’s record as the governor of Indiana, where many blamed his delayed response for worsening Indiana’s HIV outbreak in 2013. Others say they feel he has done as well as possible, given the circumstances.
“I mean, I think he did fine with the COVID task force,” Dias said. “I think he did a lot better with the vice presidential debate where he was actually showcasing his discussion skills.”
Despite differing opinions on the qualifications of the candidates, students agreed that this year’s race for the office of vice president comes with added significance.
“We should be voting in a vice president like we would a president,” Gazo said. “A lot of the responsibilities that our president has could fall on the vice president. God forbid anything happens to them.”