General VP Debate Observations

In general, I think the debate went according to script.  Joe Biden acted as the seasoned debater and Sarah Palin ‘stayed the course’ of her script.  I do think Joe Biden may have done the best debating job I have ever seen.  He was passionate, he treated Palin exactly as he needed to – not condescending, but not accepting of her attacks, and had a detailed response to all questions.

Sarah Palin didn’t flub as many expected (I didn’t).  But her strategy was clear – stick to her talking points, guide all questions back to her areas of knowledge, and simply ignore questions that were too difficult.  I don’t know if she didn’t understand the questions or simply ignored them.  However, on at least three occasions she totally avoided the question.  One question about what her ‘Achilles heel’ was – was totally blown off and she gave her strengths.  Either she doesn’t understand ‘Achilles heel’, didn’t hear the question properly, or chose to ignore it.   I give the McCain campaign some credit, they took a not ready for prime time player and coached her well enough for the big game.  I actually thought the voters would see this debate as a win for her, but the earlier polls disagree.

I thought Gwen Ifill was as bad, if not worse, than I predicted.  On the Conservative sites they are complaining she always let Biden have the last word.  I am not going to disagree, it seemed he did get to close most topics out.  However, my wife and I also noticed he seemed to go first more often.  Maybe we are wrong – but at least one one occasion, towards the end, he definitely got two questions in a row to go first.  If I was a Republican, I wouldn’t complain about that.  I think it’s much tougher to go first.

But Ifill’s main problem wasn’t who went first or second – it was her ability to actually moderate the debate.  I thought her questions were shallow and didn’t seem like they took anytime to prepare – unlike Jim Lehrer who obviously spent a lot of time developing his questions.   They were not the type, for the most part, to get inside the candidates head.  Her flow was also bad.  But the worst was, and this is a matter of opinion, she never followed up to get either candidate to answer the questions.  It was extremely frustrating to watch Sarah skate by not even in the realm of answering the question.  Some disagree that the moderator should follow-up non-answers, but should only sit back and let the candidates go – that’s what Paul Begala was suggesting.

Overall, I don’t think it was a game-changer for the McCain/Palin ticket.  I think it stopped some of their bleeding and gave the right-wing their newly anointed hero again.  Personally, on an intellectual level, I think Joe Biden won this debate by a very large margin – and I really wasn’t so sure coming in, it would work out like that.

(note – below this blog – I have additional thoughts on the debate in a separate posting)


The VP Debate’s Surprise – Joe Biden!

As I predicted earlier today, Sarah Palin did a ‘passing’ job in the debate.  To me, however, the real surprise was Joe Biden.  So much attention has been paid to the top of the ticket and additionally to Sarah Palin, many folks didn’t realize what a tremendous politician Joe Biden is – and that’s a compliment.   I thought this debate was all about Sarah and whether she passed or failed. Additionally, it would be her performance that would, if anything, move the polls.  And certainly that was the thought and basis for many of the talking points that came out of the debate by the pundits and debate watchers.

However, because Joe Biden has been so neglected on the campaign trail, this was a bit of a coming out party for him.  Palin reached 50 million viewers during her acceptance speech – Joe Biden considerably less.  Palin has been in the news EVERY SINGLE DAY.  There has been weeks Biden didn’t make the news and usually only when he committed a gaffe.  Today was his chance to reach that same 50 million plus, and thanks to Sarah Palin, maybe even more than that.

When he made the news, reports on him were usually not glowing. They’ve talked about all his missteps and maybe a little on his blue collar background.  But today he was able to demonstrate that he was articulate, knowledgeable on the issues, affable, and willing to stand up and defend his running mate.  Ipso facto, he demonstrated the qualities of someone who can step in as president, if so needed.

After the debates, the pundits did their typical analysis.  They all thought Palin ‘passed’, but Joe did a great job in the debate (at least on CNN) – from Ed Rollins to Paul Begala to David Gergen.  When the first polls came in about who won, my guess was it would be close but probably Sarah by a nose.  It wasn’t – both CBS and CNN showed a rather large win for Biden. More than that, the CNN poll was showing that he related better to them.   But why?  If expectations were set so low and she did more than just meet them – she exceeded them.  One would think that would mean a win for her.  But what we all failed to realized was that Biden had a lot to gain – because he wasn’t over exposed.  Independents, who are really all that matters at this point, may not have known much about Joe Biden.   Again, they know Obama, they know McCain, and they know Palin – but Biden was an unknown.  They may have come in thinking that, “yeah, Biden is fine.  But is Palin qualified?”.  Many may have left thinking, “Wow, Palin didn’t flub it but Biden really knows the issues.”  With that, they start projecting Biden onto Obama and also take another critical look at Sarah Palin.   What kind of adviser would she make – what kind of adviser would he make?

There was truly a big difference in their performances tonight.  Joe Biden attacked McCain, came armed with facts, articulated clearly the Obama/Biden position, and did a tremendous job refuting charges from McCain through Palin.  Palin was, obviously, very scripted.  She did a much better job transitioning responses and artfully dodging questions than she had in the past.  Beyond repairing her image, she didn’t have the details to really push forward the McCain/Palin agenda.  By staying restrained, Biden looked presidential and was able to do a great job making the case for Obama.

As the pundits stated, but for other reasons – Palin did Palin good tonight.  However, Biden did Obama good tonight – and he also did Biden good.  Again, Palin was able to rally the conservative base when they were losing hope in her.  But I do not think her performance is going to gain her anyone who truly was on the fence.  Possibly she may pick up some voters who were Republican leaners and just wanted to see if she was competent.  But Biden was able (if they needed it) to rally the Democratic base, as well as probably getting some true independents to consider the Obama/Biden ticket more seriously.  That’s where the debate was won – not the 89% partisan crowd, but the 11% that were taking the decision serious enough not to have made a decision yet.

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.