State of the Facts
The 2020 vice-presidential debate featured the candidates Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris. The debate covered a range of topics, from the coronavirus pandemic and job loss to climate change and voting in this year’s election. Here’s the data on six of those topics.
The debate opened on the topic of the pandemic. The US currently reports around 44,300 new COVID-19 cases and 668 deaths each day, according to seven-day national averages. September was the third consecutive month in which the US recorded over one million new known cases of COVID-19, bringing the total of all known cases to over 7.4 million — with over 209,000 deaths — as of October 7.
The discussion moved to jobs and the economy, with a focus on the economic challenges brought by the pandemic. In September, employment was down by 10.7 million jobs compared to February, and the unemployment rate was 7.9%, more than double the rate before the pandemic. And as moderator Susan Page mentioned, Hispanic and Black Americans, as well as women, have been among the hardest hit: The unemployment rates for Black and Hispanic Americans were 12.1% and 10.3%, respectively, in September. Of the 4.4 million people who left the labor force between February and September, 60% were women.
Debating the path to recovery, the candidates mentioned clean and renewable energy, which totaled 20% of all US energy consumption in 2019, and student loan debt, which reached $1.6 trillion in 2019. They also talked about the tax bill passed by President Trump and the Paycheck Protection Program. The candidates went on to compare the current economic situation to the one following the 2008 recession. While the pandemic triggered more than double the job losses of the 2008 recession — in two months rather than two years — half of those jobs have since returned. Job loss post-2008 continued until 2010, and job numbers did not return to pre-recession levels until the spring of 2014.
On the topic of healthcare, the candidates discussed the 2010 Affordable Care Act and protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions. The percent of people with health insurance increased from 84% in 2010 to 92% in 2018, leaving 8% — or 26.1 million — without insurance in 2019, though the uninsured rate varies by state. Most Americans are covered by private insurance, with 183 million Americans receiving coverage from an employer.
According to a 2017 report from the Department of Health and Human Services, at least 23% of Americans have pre-existing health conditions, though that percentage may be as high as 51%. The three most common pre-existing health conditions are high blood pressure, behavioral health disorders, and high cholesterol.
The climate change segment began with comments on current air and water quality in the US and investment in public lands. As of 2019, the average American lived with an air quality index (AQI) around 45.6 — within zero to 50, which is considered good — compared to 78.5 in 1980. As for public lands, the federal government owned 27% of American land as of 2018 and collected $12 billion in revenue from energy and mineral extraction on federal lands and waters in fiscal year 2019.
Discussion turned to natural disasters, including wildfires and hurricanes. Wildfires have burned an increasing number of acres since 1990. Meanwhile, hurricanes account for the top 10 most expensive natural disasters since 1980, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Five of those took place in the past decade.
Greenhouse gas emissions also came up, in connection with proposals aimed at job creation and energy production. In 2014, the US was responsible for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. In 2017, transportation accounted for 37% of total CO2 emissions, the highest among all sectors.
Toward the end of the debate, the candidates discussed law enforcement and policing in America, with particular focus on cases of police misconduct. Over one million people work as public safety officers in the United States, and police funding is the second largest category of local government spending after education. Yet, no federal agency provides timely, comprehensive data on the excessive use of force or officer-involved shootings annually, and local data varies from city to city.
The debate concluded with the topic of voting and Election Day, which falls less than a month after the debate. The pandemic has reinvigorated discussions on how Americans cast their ballots, with particular attention paid to by-mail voting. In the 2018 midterm election, 25.9% of all ballots were cast by mail, including domestic absentee ballots, military and overseas civilian ballots, and ballots cast in all-mail jurisdictions. Many states have expanded access to mail voting ahead of this year’s election. Five states — Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas— will require voters to provide a qualifying excuse beyond fear of COVID-19 in order to receive an absentee or mail ballot.
As for how many Americans typically vote in presidential elections, historical voting data reveals trends in voter turnout, with older Americans typically voting at higher rates than young people, and white Americans voting at the highest rate of all race groups in most elections.
For more information on where candidates stand on key election issues — as well as the data on those topics — visit the Voter Center.
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