The VP Debate – It’s All About Sarah

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It goes without saying that tonight’s Vice-Presidential debate is one of the most anticipated in history.  The question is why?  Obviously, this has much to do with Sarah Palin and much less to do about Joe Biden.  Let’s face it, if it was Mitt Romney vs. Joe Biden, the debate would be much more in the vein of Gore/Kemp, Lieberman/Cheney, or Edwards/Cheney.  It would draw some rating and some would tune in to see if Joe would slip-up and commit some fatal gaffe for the Obama campaign.

So, if this debate is that much anticipated because of Sarah Palin, the next question is again – why?  There are several possible reasons, all of which are obvious. It could be they want to see a potential train-wreck, see if she can carry herself enough for a voter to be able to support McCain, or to understand where this unknown stands on issues.  The theme in all three of these, is similar but coming at it from three different directions. That is, she will either demonstrate she is a capable Vice-President and thus making the McCain/Palin ticket a relevant option in this election or that the McCain/Palin ticket should not be a serious consideration to lead this country forward.  If she isn’t a train-wreck, that will show she may be presidential.  If she demonstrates a presence , that will show she may be presidential.  If she can articulate her positions, as well as explaining why McCain’s are the proper stances, that will help show she may be presidential. 

What is relatively clear at this point is that the economy, polarization of Palin, and the general unhappiness of the country has really started to solidify the Democrats for Obama and the Republicans for McCain. The arguments these two gentlemen have made about experience, ability to lead, knowledge on the economy, knowledge on foreign policy had a major impact through August and September.  Obama had much more to lose – his support was more shaky from the Democrats than McCain’s from the Republicans.  But sufficient time, issues, and events have solidified Obama’s support.  As well, Mccain’s support from the GOP stalwarts has been tested through these difficult weeks and most still stand by him.  So the focus really turns to the independents at this point and, as such, why Palin’s performance is so important.

With Bush at a 22% approval rating, the economy faltering, and the economy being the number one issue – there really shouldn’t be many independents without a preference at this point.  Those who think a change is needed are already on board with Obama and will not change their mind because of Biden.  Most of the remaining true non-deciders probably are leaning towards McCain but can’t reconcile Palin yet.  If the economy is the #1 issue and you already haven’t sided with Obama, it’s because you have some issues with his plans.  Thus, if they aren’t on board with McCain yet – the question becomes why?  Sure, there are many reasons – waiting to see how things go over the next 30 days, not happy with either candidate, or choosing a third-party candidate.  But, it’s mostly, “I don’t like Obama’s policy’s and want to vote for McCain. However, I am very concerned about Sarah Palin.”

In many ways the debate tonight is the referendum on Palin and the McCain campaign.  They have much to lose with a poor performance and a potential for much to gain if she does well.  On the other hand, the Obama/Biden campaign has very little upside or downside.  For Biden, everything is going to be relative to Palin.  Regardless of whether Biden demonstrates he is a statesman or gaffe reel, the commentary after the debate -both by the pundits and voters will go something like this: “Biden, did a really great job tonight, but Sarah Palin was able to demonstrate she can hold her own on the same stage and seem versed in the issues.” or “Biden committed at least three obvious gaffes the Obama campaign will be left to fix.  However, that doesn’t even begin to tell the story of Sarah Palin – who’s performance was as bad as was expected and the choir of those asking her to step down will become louder.”  See, the story – regardless of Biden, will always be ‘how did Sarah do?”  The best Biden can hope for is exacerbate the opinion the Sarah creates tonight.  If Sarah bombs and Biden fits the role of elder statesman very well – he will add to the negative impression created by Palin.  If he commits some errors and Sarah bombs, it will still look bad for the GOP – but not as bad as it could be.   If Palin does well, multiple Biden gaffes will strengthen her a bit more.  If he also does well, the impact of a good Biden performance would be minimal. Biden’s role is purely additive to whatever the underlying opinion is of Palin after the debate.

That said, there is great risk/reward for the McCain campaign and extremely moderate risk/reward for Biden.  In fact, the Biden strategy might be counter to everything the pundits have been suggesting this week about him staying out of her way and being very passive.  If my hypothesis holds, then any downside to Biden committing a gaffe or looking like he is coming on too strong would have a minimal effect.  Therefore, it might behoove Biden to be the attack dog and see if he can unnerve Palin.  If Biden doesn’t attack, then Palin will most likely stay on message and do a credible job in the debates – as I’ve previously stated.  Obviously Biden would have to be measured in his attacks so that she doesn’t start getting a pass for him being too hard on her.

All in all, I believe that Palin will have done her homework and do a credible job tonight.  She will most likely help her campaign and give independents a reason to reconsider the McCain campaign.  It will not be a ‘game changer’ but will stop some of the McCain bleeding and allow him to regroup, refocus his message, and go on the attack again over the next 32 days.  It might be worth a couple of points in the polls.  There has been so much distraction with Palin’s flubs this past week, that if the only thing she does tonight is to put to bed the Sarah Palin Emergency Defense Program – that will be a significant help to McCain.


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