The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Harris/Fly 2024’: Debate viewers couldn’t look away from the bug on Pence’s head

A fly landed on Vice President Pence's head while he was answering a question on law enforcement and race during the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 7. (Video: The Washington Post)

The fly touched down on Vice President Pence’s lustrous white hair midway through the vice-presidential debate on Wednesday night. For more than two minutes, it stayed put — a jarring black dot on millions of TV screens.

Even as Pence and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) traded barbs over the Supreme Court, the Breonna Taylor case and systemic racism, the fly was arguably the most talked about moment at the Salt Lake City debate.

Pence and Harris clash under the shadow of a surging pandemic

“If this happened to Trump he’d deduct it for $70,000,” tweeted “The Daily Show.”

Within minutes, scores of parody Twitter accounts for the fly popped up, Snapchat added a new filter to show users with white hair adorned with a fly, and jokes flew that the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had posthumously sent the insect to disrupt Pence’s night.

Joe Biden’s campaign wasted no time seizing on the moment by tweeting out quips, registering and even adding a fly swatter emblazoned with “Truth Over Flies” to its merchandise website — a hot item that quickly topped more than 15,000 orders, according to a member of the campaign.

The fly incident was fodder for late-night hosts, who couldn’t help but weigh in.

“Harris/Fly 2024,” tweeted “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”

“The fly spent 2 MINUTES on Mike Pence. It changed its voter registration to Mike Pence’s head,” tweeted “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”

Jimmy Kimmel said the fly stayed on for so long that “technically that fly is now [Pence’s] running mate”

As terms like “the fly,” “flies” and “flygate” trended on Twitter, many suggested the fly’s newfound fame was overshadowing the candidates’ tense arguments about the coronavirus pandemic.

“I can’t wait to watch that fly on Dancing with the Stars next season,” one person tweeted.

The pure absurdity of the fly triggered actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus to suggest it could have been a plot point in an episode of HBO’s “Veep,” which she starred in and executive produced.

“Well, I wish we had thought of this on @VeepHBO — who’s controlling the fly?”

Some demanded to know how exactly the fly came to Pence’s head, as it seemed to simply appear. Josh Marshall, publisher and editor of TPM, created a slow-motion GIF of the insect landing on Pence’s head.

Did the fly have political motives? While some on Twitter suggested the bug was “antifa,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) countered that the fly was perhaps a member of the “deep state.”

In a statement to The Washington Post, Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, declined to answer if Pence felt the fly.

“The fly gave as many straight answers as Kamala Harris did,” Murtaugh said.

But why did the fly land on Pence’s head? And why did it stay for so long? Caleb Hubbard, a PhD candidate studying veterinary entomology at the University of California at Riverside, and Michael Dickinson, a professor of biology and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology, had differing theories.

Hubbard suggested the hairs on the fly’s legs, which are used to pick up food, could have gotten caught in Pence’s hair.

“Also, potentially, a product that he had in his hair was somewhat attractive to them,” Hubbard said. “It could be sweet smelling — they have good senses of smell. It could have tasted good.”

Dickinson, whose email moniker is “flyman” and who has been studying the insect for two decades, said that the fly probably stayed unmoved simply because Pence didn’t swat it away.

“Normally if a fly lands on your arm and you don’t do anything, it will just hang out,” Dickinson said. “It will just do its fly stuff, which is to kind to crawl around looking for food."

But both scientists agreed that the fly is earning the well-deserved position of the topic of conversation.

“Flies are super great and interesting organisms,” Hubbard said.

Flies have found their way into the political discourse before. Dickinson said the clip reminded him of the video of President Obama swatting — and killing — a fly during a 2009 interview. Pete Souza, the White House photographer during the Obama administration, posted a series of images of Obama killing a fly in the Oval Office. Others also tweeted side-by-side images of Hillary Clinton with a fly on her eyebrow during a 2016 presidential debate.

Dickinson said he’s looking forward to updating his lectures on the insect, adding the new clip with Pence to his roster.

“This is like manna from heaven,” he said.