Presidential debates generally fail to shift voter preferences by very much, and vice presidential debates may matter even less. But sometimes, when debates are perceived to be blowouts – as the first presidential debate this cycle appears to have been – the effects can be more potent. The uptick in support for Mitt Romney in recent polls since his strong debate performance against President Obama attests to this.
But last night’s vice presidential debate between Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice Joe President Biden was no blowout.
That is not to say there was any shortage of blowout moments. Mr. Biden came ready to fight. He swung early and often, determined not to treat his opponent with kid gloves as many analysts feel the president did in his debate with Mr. Romney. But Mr. Ryan held his own, countering his way to a solid overall performance that went toe-to-toe with Biden.
Last night’s debate was, well, exactly that – a real debate. There was substance – lots of it – and feistiness, and a real contest of ideas. It was everything the first presidential debate was not, perhaps reminding many viewers that this is more of what they should have seen during the Obama/Romney duel. In fact, the vice presidential debate was so good that it may have reminded viewers about how bad the presidential debate was.
Biden appeared to be very aware of his boss’s near-collapse in the presidential face-off; Democrats were on defense, but the vice president did not let them down. Biden was an effective attacker who was willing to take the Republican ticket to task for controversial policies and campaign statements (like Romney’s 47 percent remarks).
He came across as competent, informed, and knowledgeable, someone who would be ready to step in as chief executive if the moment came. He connected effectively with average Americans, especially the middle class voters he claims to have championed throughout his political career.
He was aggressive – very much so – perhaps in a way he could not be against Sarah Palin in 2008. But he also came across as condescending and dismissive at times. Some perceived his exasperated smiles as sneering. And his frequent interruptions and eye-rolls recalled Obama’s dismissive body language in the first presidential debate.
But at least it was clear that Biden wanted to be there. He was willing to fight to hold on to his job. He was bold, and he defended the policies and achievements of the Obama administration even more forcefully than the president did last week. In that sense, Biden may have actually overshadowed Obama, as many believe he has frequently done over the past four years. Still, many Americans appreciate a fighter, and they may be wondering when – or if – that spirit will emerge from Obama again. After all, this is a presidential race, not a vice presidential contest.
Ryan kept the spotlight more on Romney. Overall, the congressman came across as reasonable and tempered. He has done his homework, and he rebutted the vice president’s attacks vigorously. He clearly got under Biden’s skin during their exchanges, but Ryan largely kept cool. His demeanor suggested confidence, but not hubris.
For those being introduced to Ryan for the first time, they were likely to be impressed. His forceful defense of Republican policy proposals, especially with respect to deficit reduction, taxes, job creation, and the economy generally, would have satisfied many, especially those predisposed to support Romney in the first place.
In the end, voters got a very clear sense of how different the two presidential tickets are, but it is doubtful whether anything that transpired last night will be enough to push any undecided voters off the fence.
Ryan’s unwavering pro-life stance, articulated in response to a directed question by the take-charge, un-Lehrer-like moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC news, may actually turn off some of the female voters so highly-coveted in this election. It is an election the Republicans seemed to be making inroads with since the presidential debate.
But Ryan’s response also likely energized the conservative base, and that is, admittedly, one of the main reasons he is on the GOP ticket in the first place.
In the end, the Biden/Ryan debate was great TV and great politics. But it was no blowout; it was basically a draw. That may be enough to put the brakes on Romney’s recent momentum, but it is unlikely to move the needle by much. And there may not even be enough time between now and Tuesday’s next presidential debate for it to have more of an impact.
The vice presidential debate certainly did not set the reset button on the race, but, at the very least, Biden set Obama up effectively for round two, and now it is up to the president to capitalize on that. For his part, Ryan’s performance showed that he can go up against the incumbent vice president and hold his own, no small task in its own right.