Friday, October 03, 2008

Thoughts on the vice presidential debate

Okay, it is time to talk about the vice presidential debate between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin. I've watched the debate on television last night, watched the MSNBC commentary on the debate, and listened to the debate today via webcast. And I've been thinking and reflecting on the debate since yesterday. Here is the webcast for the vice presidential debate:

And here is the transcript for the vice presidential debate.

My first impressions on the debate was that it was a tie. For the past couple of weeks, I've been hearing how Palin was going to fall on her face during the debate, or how the vice presidential debate was going to be of even lower expectations than previous vice presidential debates--can you say Dan Quayle will mop the floor with Sarah Palin? And then in the hours before the debate, I'm told that Palin is a strong debater, and will beat Joe Biden in the debate. So there was a lot of hype and speculation leading up to this big debate.

So who won in Biden verses Palin? I'm going to say it was a tie. Sarah Palin did not fall on her face during last night's debate. Sarah Palin was poised, collected, and especially charming in her folksy, Alaskan manner. Palin didn't make any serious, flubbing, mistakes during the debate. Palin also showed that she could be an attack dog on taxes, Iraq, and energy policy. In fact, Sarah Palin clearly showed that she could debate on the national scene with the big boys in Washington. This was a big win for Sarah Palin.

Joe Biden also did very well in the debate. Joe Biden was very cool, very knowledgeable, and did a very good job in deconstructing the McCain campaign talking points, consistently linking John McCain to the Bush administration. In fact, Biden's linking of McCain to a Bush third term was almost boring in its consistency. Even more, Joe Biden did not put his foot in his mouth, considering how much of a talker Biden can be. Joe Biden's job in this debate was to link John McCain to the failed Bush presidency, and he performed that job very well for the Obama campaign. This was also a win for Joe Biden.

The real loser in this debate was John McCain. Here is why. Sarah Palin was very good in presenting herself as a strong debater in last night's debate. She stemmed her own bloodletting and questions of whether she could perform well on the national scene. However, the answers that Palin gave to the debate questions were nothing more than canned McCain campaign talking points--John McCain is a maverick, John McCain represents change, John McCain and I will clean up Washington corruption. There were no policy points of substance as to how a McCain / Palin administration will represent change, or what a McCain / Palin administration will do to clean up Washington corruption. Sarah Palin simply regurgitated McCain campaign talking points that you could probably pull out of any stump speech she made since becoming the vice presidential nominee. Sarah Palin could debate on the national scene, and certainly win over the conservative wing of the Republican Party--MSNBC's Pat Buchanan practically exploded in his pants over how Sarah Palin "was sensational" in the debate:

Sarah Palin didn't have to rally the conservative base over to the McCain campaign--they've been rooting for Sarah Palin ever since she stepped up to the RNC convention stage to accept her VP nomination. The problem for the McCain campaign is that Sarah Palin had to entice the moderates and independents over to the McCain campaign. She couldn't do that with the canned McCain campaign talking points she was stating during the debate. It was not enough. Sarah Palin had to present the McCain campaign's policy points on the economy, the financial mess, tax cuts, the war on Iraq, and other important issues, rather than saying that John McCain is a maverick who represents real change and will clean up Washington corruption. It is not enough to say that a McCain / Palin administration will fix the country's problems, but you have to explain the steps on how a McCain / Palin administration will provide such a fix. Sarah Palin refused to provide that information in the debate. She could not do it. Even more, Sarah Palin refused to rebuke Joe Biden's consistent tying of John McCain to George Bush--and the few times that Palin tried to rebuke Biden, she went back to the McCain talking points of attacking Obama, rather than explaining why John McCain is different from George W. Bush. So while Sarah Palin may have won a tactical victory in showing up to debate Joe Biden, and not make a fool of herself, she lost in the overall strategic campaign of bringing moderates and independents into the McCain fold. Consider these two post-debate polls:

Two quick polls indicated that Biden fared better in viewers' minds than Palin in the debate. A CBS News/Knowledge Networks Poll found that 46 percent of uncommitted voters who watched the debate thought Biden won, with 21 percent siding with Palin. A CNN poll found respondents judging Biden the winner by a margin of 51 percent to 36 percent but calling Palin more likable by 54 percent to Biden's 36 percent.

And here is even more polling information through CNN:

Both candidates exceeded expectations -- 84 percent of the people polled said Palin did a better job than they expected, while 64 percent said Biden also exceeded expectations.


Respondents thought Biden was better at expressing his views, giving him 52 percent to Palin's 36 percent.

On the question of the candidates' qualifications to assume the presidency, 87 percent of those polled said Biden is qualified and 42 percent said Palin is qualified.

The candidates sparred over which team would be the better agent of change, and Biden came out on top of that debate, with 53 percent of those polled giving the nod to the Delaware senator while 42 percent said Palin was more likely to bring change.

So while Sarah Palin had certainly improved her image with the debate among respondents, Joe Biden showed himself to be a stronger candidate than Palin, polling better in the areas of presidential qualifications, agent of change, and expressing views. Sarah Palin polled better than Biden on expectations, but even here we have to consider how much media speculation there was of Palin crumpling in the spotlight of this national debate. Then there is this CBS News post-debate poll:

Immediately after the vice presidential debate, CBS News interviewed a nationally representative sample of nearly 500 debate watchers, assembled by Knowledge Networks, who were "uncommitted voters" - voters who are either undecided about who to vote for or who have a preference but say they could still change their minds.

Forty-six percent of these uncommitted viewers said Biden won the debate Thursday night, while 21 percent said Palin won. Thirty-three percent thought it was a tie.

Even a quarter of Republican uncommitted voters thought Biden won the debate.

Among these voters, there was improvement in views of both Palin and Biden. Fifty-five percent of the uncommitted voters said their opinion of Palin had changed for the better as a result of the debate; just 14 percent said they had a lower opinion of her after tonight, and 30 percent said their views of her did not change.

As for Biden, 53 percent of uncommitted viewers said their image of the veteran senator improved, while five percent said their opinion of him got worse. Forty-two percent said their opinion did not change.

Palin's rating improved after the debate on being knowledgeable on important issues - from 43 percent to 66 percent - but Biden still far outpaces her. After the debate, 98 percent thought he was knowledgeable.

Uncommitted voters' views of Palin's preparedness for the job of vice president also improved as a result of her debate performance - from 39 percent to 55 percent. But those numbers are still nowhere near the percentage that thinks Biden is prepared - 97 percent, up from 81 percent before the debate.

These post-debate numbers are just incredible. Joe Biden polls better than Sarah Palin in many areas--less people had a lower opinion of Biden over Palin, Biden's knowledgeable rating improved significantly over Palin, and Biden's preparation for the debate soared over Palin's preparation. Even a quarter of the uncommitted Republicans felt that Biden won the debate over Palin. Sarah Palin had a greater responsibility to bring over the uncommitted, independent, and moderate voters to the McCain camp. She failed. And with the McCain campaign continuing in a downward spiral, with about a month left before the election, it is going to be far more difficult for John McCain and Sarah Palin to turn this campaign around.

This was a huge, lost opportunity for John McCain and Sarah Palin.

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